BOOK REVIEW: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen RussellSwamplandia!
By Karen Russell
Completed July 2, 2011

Journey to Swamplandia and meet the Bigtree family – a clan of alligator wrestlers and theme park owners whose existence depends on gullible tourists desiring to see the unbelievable. The Bigtrees’ lives turn upside down, however, when Hilola Bigtree dies from ovarian cancer. Hilola was the main attraction – a petite woman who could tape shut an alligator’s mouth in 30 seconds and swan dive into a pit of alligators unscathed. While Hilola’s death takes a toll on the park, it most profoundly affects her surviving family – her husband Chief and children Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.

With the park losing tourists and their home missing Hilola, the remaining Bigtree family begins a fast deterioration. Kiwi runs off the mainland to find work at a competing theme park to help pay off Swamplandia’s debts, while Chief  takes one of his long business trips. Osceola, enjoying newfound freedom, becomes fascinated with spiritualism and believes she can date ghosts – to the point where she runs off one night to elope with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.

That leaves 13-year-old Ava alone – until The Bird Man arrives. Allegedly hired to help locals clear off birds from their islands, Ava befriends The Bird Man, and together they begin a several-day journey to a place called The Underworld to find Osceola and bring her home.

The majority of the  book is told from Ava’s perpsective, and true to her age, she sees things in a naive way. As the story progresses, her naivete turns to scorching reality. The reader sees what’s coming, but young Ava does not.  The last 100 pages of Swamplandia! will have you turning the pages in dread, hoping your worst fears for this young heroine do not come true.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as too fantastic with ghost lovers and swamp living, but Karen Russell does a tremendous job making it all seem very real. Her ability to describe the people and places of Swamplandia suck you into a vortex that you don’t want to leave until the last page is read. At the heart of it all, Swamplandia! is a coming of age tale that focuses on the love of family.  With its gothic feel and Florida setting, I enjoyed this story and can’t wait to read more by this talented young writer. (  )

Side note:

Swamplandia! is set in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands – an area in southwest Florida that is largely uninhabited and teeming with Florida nature. While you may not want to visit Ten Thousand Islands in person (bugs and alligators abound!), you can take a virtual visit online. Enjoy!

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BOOK REVIEW: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find
By Flannery O’Connor
Completed October 1, 2010

Flannery O’Connor is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to get to. Prompted by recent reviews of her short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I decided there was no time like the present. Truth be told, after finishing A Good Man, I cannot believe I waited so long to enjoy this talented writer’s stories.

While I enjoyed each story in this collection, a few stood out for me:

1) “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family and their grandmother are traveling by car to Florida for vacation. The grandmother is quite precocious, even smuggling her cat into the car, despite her son’s disapproval. She was also leery of going to Florida because she worried about running into an outlaw serial killer. When she takes her family on a wild goose chase to find an old house, her worst fear is realized, coming face to face with the serial killer.

2) “The River” – A young boy, Harry, goes with his new babysitter to a church revival where he is baptized for the first time. Harry is neglected by his parents, particularly his alcoholic mother. Once home, the boy remembers the words of the preacher – that he is somebody – and runs away from home to return to the river, to return to the feeling of self-worth that he experienced during his baptism. Of all the stories in this collection, this one touched me the most. I won’t soon forget young Harry.

3) “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” – General Sash was 104 years old, whose 62-year-old granddaughter was graduating from college. The general (who we realize later was only a major) could care less about his granddaughter’s academic accomplishment but looked forward to being featured on stage as part of the ceremony. As one of the oldest living Confederate “generals,” Sash enjoyed the limelight, especially the pretty girls who often posed with him for pictures. Upon arriving at the graduation, though, he didn’t find any pretty girls or much of the limelight, and eventually does something that no one planned on. This story had an undertone of dark humor, and I found myself smirking at the old general from time to time.

All of the stories featured in A Good Man is Hard to Find are gems – a reflection of post-World War II American South with all their doubts and insecurities. If you haven’t discovered the amazing writing style of Flannery O’Connor, then this story collection is an excellent place to start. ( )

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