Friday, May 18, 2012

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (Audio)

Just a few days ago, I waxed lovingly over any book that gives me a taste of old Florida.  Not necessarily old, as in long ago, but the small towns with dirt roads, the fishing camps, the undiscovered piece of Florida that hasn't yet been touched by tourists.  


So this book has been on my radar for a long time.  I intentionally skipped over any detailed synopsis because I wanted to explore this one, and languish in the side of Florida that I love.  Entertainment Weekly made it hard to resist...they wouldn't stop talking about it.


Synopsis:  The Bigtree family...faux Indian, alligator-wrestlers, and owners of a tourist attraction on a small island off the coast of Florida, has provided decades of kitschy entertainment to visitors.  Granted, their life has been isolated, but the three children Ava, Osceola and Kiwi, don't really know any better.  But their mother has recently died of an aggressive ovarian cancer, and things have fallen apart.  Their theme park is beginning to fail due to a nearby competitor that calls itself the World of Darkness.  The adults are promptly dispatched...Grandpa to an old-folks home because of Alzheimer's, and Chief (dad) to the mainland to conduct some sort of mysterious business to generate funds to renovate Swamplandia.  The waifs are alone.


Kiwi, the oldest, runs off to work at the World of Darkness, a feeble attempt at helping with debt obligations.  Osceola, showing signs of depression, begins to have love affairs with ghosts.  Ava, our primarily narrator in the Bigtree story, and the youngest of the three children at 13, fantasizes at locating a gator-wrestling contest that she can win and cash in for big bucks.  Until Osceola goes missing, and Ava must go on a quest to find her with the help of a strange Gypsy-like fellow called the Bird Man.


This is a tale of clashing worlds, of a family in ruin, of the loss of innocence, and a coming-of-age in a way that has never been told.  It is a story that blends heartbreak with fantasy, tackiness with wonder - an extremely ambitious endeavor for a debut novelist.


My thoughts:  It was tempting to sit and let this review brew in my mind for a few weeks, but I suspect that would not have helped.  I struggle with my thoughts on this one.  I had very high expectations for this book for all the reasons I listed, and those expectations were not met.  Yet I'm finding the story to be haunting and unforgettable.


The first half of the book is simply bizarre and maddening.  These children are bright and precocious, but have been neglected.  Even when the mother was alive, they were only half-assed home schooled, and alienated from reality.  In fact, as I was listening, I wasn't completely sure what year this was taking place.  It was only when Kiwi ran away to work at the World of Darkness did I realize it was modern day.  And a 16 year-old that has to have seances to interact with other teenagers that are ghosts?  I wanted to have a smack down with the father when he explains it away by calling it a "phase".


Then there was a long tale about Osceola's ghost boyfriend, the dredgeman.  This added an element of fantasy, but I'm not sure it was a worthwhile detour.


But as the book progresses into the second half, it becomes sinister, and I started to feel anxious and twitchy.  As a mother of teenage children, this was not headed in a good direction and I could barely get through it.  It nearly made my physically ill.  I've read hundreds of books that involve dark circumstances and children, but this particular one just got to me.


I can attribute much of my emotional upheaval to the incredible writing of Ms. Russell.  Her prose was masterful, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is blessed with a special talent.  The plot is unique as well.  I can pretty much guarantee you won't have read anything quite like this book.  


But I'm glad it is over.  If you are confused, then you aren't the only one.


A few words about the audio production:  To accommodate the two narrators in the story, Ava and Kiwi, our readers were Arielle Sitrick and David Ackroyd.  I've not listened to either before, and in fact I believe this may be Arielle's first project as a reader.  While both of them did a fine job, neither felt right.  Arielle sounded VERY young, too young for a 13 year old.  And David sounded too old for 17 year old Kiwi.  Therefore, I can't give a glowing recommendation to this audio experience.  


3.5 out of 5 stars            





18 comments:

vinobaby said...

I love any book about Florida as well. I thought Swamplandia had some of the elements of a modern fairy tale/fable almost -- the disassociation from reality, crazy characters... I thought the end was rather brusk though. I wonder how different it would have been on audio.

bermudaonion said...

I swear the books that are overbuzzed by mainstream media usually leave me flummoxed these days. I bought this book when it first came out and haven't been drawn to it.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I keep feeling like I "should" read this...but the synopsis itself doesn't interest me at all. I agree with Kathy; a lot of the books spotlighted lately leave me wondering who the heck is making the spotlight decisions. I still may read this one but I'm not chomping at the bit.

C.B. James said...

I read the short story this is based on a few years ago and loved it. I recall the colletion it came from had some wonderful stories and some so-so ones. I had planned on reading this until the mixed reviews starting coming out and all the hype of course.

I do recommend the short story collection, though. I just wish I could remember the name of it....

Jackie Bailey said...

I wasn't a big fan of this book either. I agree it is unique, but I'm glad I'm unlikely to read anything similar again ;-)

Alyce said...

I had already decided not to read this book, but I was curious to see what your opinion was. Having heard about what happens during the tense parts of the book, I really just have no desire to put myself through that.

Zibilee said...

Still in the middle of this one, and I haven't gotten much farther since we talked. I am anxious about where it's headed at this point, and this birdman development, well, it just feels unsavory. I will eventually get back to it, and I am sure there will be much to discuss!

Meg @ write meg! said...

After reading so many glowing reviews of this one, I was considering snoopin' around at the library for it -- but now I'm pretty sure all the things that bothered you would definitely bother me, too. So the jury is out.

Ti said...

Well, I thought it was just okay (as you know) and I listened to it on audio afterward and thought the same thing... Ava was too young and Kiwi sounded too old.

I just don't understand Russell's need to take it where it went.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I have had this one on my list because of all the great reviews (and EW), but I just wasn't sure about it. I may put it on hold for awhile until my expectations die down.

JoAnn said...

I had a feeling this book wasn't for me...

Jenny said...

LOL, I have pretty much felt confused after every review I've read for this. It's great but it's not and it's weird.. hehe. I still have yet to decide if I want to try it, though I sort of do, haha.

Tasha B. said...

I tend to avoid books about my home state. I just know if there are inaccuracies it's going to drive me crazy.

Why have I heard of this book? The cover doesn't look familiar.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I was actually bored by the Ossie diversion although Jim liked that part. and I agree it was unforgettable in many ways, but all the hype and awards? not in our (Jim and my) opinions1

Bybee said...

I'm planning to read this one.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Hmmm I'm sorry it got weird but I'm glad there was good writing? :O) I've heard such good things about this one that I do think I'll read it but I'll consider myself warned about the "sinister" side. :O)

Jenners said...

I was all pumped to read this after EW went gonzo over it but all the "real" readers who have read it have been disappointed in it. Which makes me think that EW doesn't know all that they are talking about. Harumph.

Julie P. said...

Uhmmm yeah. That's kind of the same reaction a friend had to it!