I've been blessed to have a long and flourishing reading life, most of which had taken place far away from the internet. Now that I'm sharing my reading life with the world, I've been thinking about the books that I have loved the most, or that are particularly memorable to me. And so today, and periodically on the blog, I'm going to take some time to talk about the books that I've read and loved before I was a part of the blogging community. To share the books from days gone by, the ones that are long-past their days of Internet-fame, or the ones that never had any to begin with.
First up, is a book that's wonderfully weird and one that introduced me to a uniquely talented writer -
In the leaves of: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Published: February 1, 2011 by Vintage
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline — think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades — and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.
Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.
Karen Russell weaves the tale of a wonderfully weird family who run an alligator amusement park in Everglades, Florida with inventive prose, at times magnificent, that is abundant in sincere, poignant feeling. Following the death of their mother, the famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree, and the absence of their father, the three teenage Bigtree children are left to find their own way. The youngest, 12-year-old Ava, sets off on a quest through the swamps to the Underworld with the mysterious Bird Man. But in Russell's eerie, Wonderland-esque world everything is not what it seems. Ava and Kiwi and Ossie learn that growing up and coping with grief can challenge the human spirit in very real ways, even when life appears to be founded on oddities and whimsicalities. This book holds more than it seems, and though it shows its status as a debut novel at times, it succeeds in packing a darkly emotional wallop.
I read this book several years ago, and so I can't give a full review so far removed from the reading of it. As this was my introduction to one of my now-favourite writers, though, I wanted to take a few moments to discuss how this book has stayed with me over the years and what made it so memorable.
A quick perusal of the book's Goodreads page will make clear, not everyone likes this book. And I'll admit, it is not an easily likeable read. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say that the strong reactions to this book did not mar my own experience of it. Personally I found this book to be unique - it was not just a quirky family book. It played with elements of the gothic and the absurd, turned the delightful quirky family trope wholly on its head. And no matter what reaction you have to the book, it cannot be denied that Karen Russell knows how to write some darn good sentences.
Her descriptions of the strange world of the Bigtree family (who have not one ounce of Native American blood, despite the father calling himself the Chief) are sometimes just gobsmackingly good. In the opening scene, the swamp nights are 'dark and star-lepered' and the alligators have 'icicle overbites'. Hilola's performance is gorgeously conjured up in Russell's prose, with so many perfect sentences, for example: 'Like black silk, the water bunched and wrinkled.'
Karen Russell also writes mystically good short stories. I do think she works best in the shorter forms of fiction (she also has a novella out, that I have yet to read). She won the Macarthur Genius Grant a few years back, so it's pretty hard to deny her talent.