Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #37: Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

swampThere’s a strong chance that any attempt on my family’s part to co-operate some sort of theme park would end in both tears and shouted insults regarding business acumen (also probably bankruptcy). You see, we Bindrims are not meant to work in concert, and it’s really in everyone’s best interest that we reserve our interactions for lesser affairs, like the Thanksgiving table. Still, whenever I stumble onto a movie or book predicated on the notion of a family-run entertainment venue (in a fit of boredom, I even watched Dolphin Tale a few weeks ago) I can’t help but envy the unique camaraderie that comes with providing a bit of wacky family-run family fun.

Which brings me to Swamplandia! A gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades, Swamplandia! is owned and operated by the Bigtree family, whose implied tribal background is just that: implied. In reality, the Bigtrees are made up of dad (the Chief), mother Hilola, daughter Osceola, son Kiwi and daughter Ava, the last of whom is our narrator. The family-run operation — accessible only by boat — is chugging along smoothly until the relatively sudden death of Hilola, who in addition to being the maternal unit is also Swamplandia’s star attraction: Every night she dives headfirst into a pit of alligators in what’s referred to as “Swimming with the Seths” (all of the alligators are named, and referred to as, Seth). After Hilola’s death, her surviving family members are distraught, and Swamplandia struggles to retain its fan base absent a main attraction.


Then things start to get weird. Strapped for cash and withdrawn from his family, Chief Bigtree departs for the mainland to try and raise funds for his Swamplandia recovery plan. Left to their own devices, the kids splinter: Kiwi defects to World of Darkness, a rival theme park; Osceola begins communicating with (and dating) long-dead spirits in the Florida swamps; and Ava, stressing the gradual disintegration of her family, departs on her own mission to try and bring them back together.



Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #72: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell


At just under 400 pages, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! seemed to stretch out further than Stephen King’s weightiest door-stopper. My being exhausted for much of it added to that skewed perception, I’ll admit. To overcome a pair of drowsy eyes, an author must enrapture me so fully that sleep no longer even enters into my mind, a task I could immediately tell Russell was not up to. It wouldn’t be until later in the book that she’d draw my ire (and a rating of 1), but the early-going didn’t have that winning formula either, trundling along towards a 2, at best.

Truthfully, the end has biased me against the whole, in effect giving me selective amnesia by wiping out all memory of what made the latter parts disappointing by comparison. I recall Russell grabbing my attention with the story of how Louis Thanksgiving, whose ghost Osceola falls in love with, came to die. Similar to the story that gives Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole its name, I’d rather she have repackaged it as a short story, not had it lose its luster by virtue of being alongside all the surrounding dreck that comprised the rest of the story.

As with the aforementioned book, it reads like a rough sketch written in service of that one tale, meant to justify its existence. Likewise, the way Russell closes out the book feels as if it written because the story needed an ending, having nothing to do with providing actual closure. Not long ago I read Small Steps, an unworthy sequel to Holes where Armpit is unwittingly sent off on a journey that ends in the precise spot it began, and Swamplandia! is but a small step (pun intended) from it, Russell giving you the illusion that her characters have passed go on her Monopoly board when, in reality, it just took them a couple hundred pages to move one space.

A move they, and Russell, make clumsily. The characters she drove apart are thrust back together due to the most coincidental of coincidences and the story… just ends. They are finally pushed in one unified direction, but we hardly get to see them gesture that way before Russell sees fit to stop. It’s maddening, and were I not trying to abstain from spoilers, I would use this as an opportunity to vent more openly about it.

Suffice it to say, the events leading up to the finale aren’t expounded upon anymore than that finale itself. In relation to one event in particular, Russell lets an elephant into the room, then acts as if to pretend we hallucinated it, that it was never there in the first place. Those who have read the book should get what I’m so vaguely hinting at.

Were this a short story, I’d be more forgiving. It’s the way in which Russell made the story seem to drag out into oblivion that upped my overall disappointment. In other words, I’ll stick to her short stories; at least with them she has less time to piddle around, and so the ending is more anomaly than natural extension. I won’t count her out entirely as a novelist, since Vampires in the Lemon Grove did have one instance where she displayed the ability to stretch a story out and write a worthwhile ending, but I’m not going to make the same mistake again and think that, by giving her more room to work, it’ll magically fix all her problems. More often than not, they’re too overwhelming to overcome. However, her short stories make them seem a little less insurmountable, and for that I appreciate them.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #68: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell


Authors don’t strike me as the most attractive bunch. Like metal, writing seems to attract a rather odd looking crowd. There are exceptions, though, and Karen Russell is one of them. Likewise, the stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grovethat are beautiful in their execution are exceptions as well.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove came to my attention thanks to a stray library slip tucked away behind the back flap of the copy I checked out of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Someone had checked the two of them out together, and the title demanded I give it a look.

Alas, the short stories contained within its bindings were rarely as intriguing as that title, or the title story itself. I blame this wholesale on Russell’s failure to provide a natural, satisfying conclusion to all but one of the stories.

Like Stephen King, her endings often just peter out. Unlike him, though, her endings are also infuriatingly vague. The sort that made me ask, out loud, “Wait, what?”

Essentially, once I started warming up to the zany concept of whichever story I was on, she cut me and the story off with great abruptness. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” for instance, never gets to reach any sort of climax; there’s a rising action, but no payoff.

That goes for the collection as a whole. She pulls you in with some weird concept and a number of gorgeously written descriptive passage, then boots you off just as you were starting to warm up to her unique style and grow interested in her story.

Yet I know she’s capable of so much more. “The New Veterans” is proof that she can sustain the sort of brilliance I only caught snippets of in the rest of the stories. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. The concept doesn’t overtake the story. And her writing is consistently sharp throughout.

This gives me hope for her acclaimed novel, Swamplandia, since I doubt it’s a coincidence that “The New Veterans” was also the longest of the stories, by far. Maybe, like Kurt Vonnegut, she’s just better suited to the long form. I’ll find out soon enough.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.

sonk’s #CBR5 Reviews #21-26

Once again, I’ve fallen behind on posting my reviews to the group blog! So here is a list of my most recent reads, books 21 through 26. Follow the links for full reviews!

(And this officially means I’m halfway through with my Cannonball Read…ahead of schedule!)

#21. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (5 stars)

#22. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (4 stars)

#23. Case Histories  by Kate Atkinson (5 stars)

#24. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman (5 stars)

#25. The Purity Myth by Jess Valenti (4 stars)

#26. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (3 stars)

BenML’s #CBR5 Review #05, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Karen Russell likes kids. She likes them to be lost, hurried, confused, afraid. Have you read Swamplandia!? In that story, our heroine is Ava, proud member of the Bigtree clan, brave alligator wrestler and frightened little girl. Here, Russell offers ten stories that include similar themes. And like Swamplandia!, (a book I really, really loved), Russell deftly and somewhat subtly shimmies between the real world and fantasy. I think a mark of good fantasy is that when you read it, you don’t think “this some good fantasy! what a weird, wacky world we are visiting!” (or, alternately, “what the hell is going on?”). Instead, you think about the characters and the emotions that drive the story, accepting the constructed world appreciatively. Russell hits that nail on the head.

There are ten stories here, and I won’t go into all of them. The first, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” is what led to Swamplandia!, though it differs a bit. But we are again treated to a muddy world, filled with ghosts and lizards and a man wearing feathers. In the end, Ava has to wrestle a lot more than a silly alligator. The book’s title comes from the final story. Here we find young girls, pulled away from their werewolf parents (that affliction skips a generation) and put in reform school. They must learn to be bipedal, to stop urinating everywhere, to stop chewing. Can they truly adapt? You know what they say—home is where the heart is.  The second story is my favorite. Two brothers, mourning the loss of their little sister, find a pair of swimming goggles that allow them to see all the ghosts under the sea. It’s heart-wrenching and magical, full of glorious images.

Curious for more? Check it out: