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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! (edition 2011)

by Karen Russell (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,5021782,424 (3.33)1 / 407
Authors:Karen Russell (Author)
Info:Knopf (2011), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 336 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, contemporary American

Work details

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

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Showing 1-5 of 177 (next | show all)
This book hit all my hot buttons. Great characters, unusual plot, masterful writing, ironic humor. It's a little like Water for Elephants in that it leans slightly into a fantasy world without tipping over into the fantasy genre. I listened to it, and though it took me a while to appreciate the actor who read Ava's parts (a male actor read Kiwi's) I grew to love her. Some books I suspect are better on paper, other in audio form. In this case I think both would be wonderful. The only off note for me was an event towards the end of the book. I don't want to spoil things so I won't go into detail except to say that it wasn't dealt with in a way that felt consistent with the rest of the book. Other than that I was entranced.

( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
The book started strong with an intriguing premise and lyrical writing, and then it just fizzled aimlessly like a catfish on land wriggling left and right going nowhere fast with an unsatisfying and abrupt ending to match.

The Bigtree family runs the Swamplandia! alligator wrestling theme park that went downhill following the mom’s death from cancer. Grandpa has dementia and is sent to a mainland home. Kiwi, 17, leaves to make money working at the rival theme park. Dad’s struggle to keep the park afloat goes awry quickly, and he disappears except to ensure supplies are delivered to the park for the kids. Ava, 13, and older Osceola are left to fend for themselves. The latter is convinced she loves a ghost and leaves to marry him in the underworld. Ava befriends “The Bird Man” who helps her look for Osceola in the swamp, but it all ends badly.

The book is in a unique setting amongst the Florida Everglades near the Gulf. Ava’s narratives address island life vs. mainland and the social injustices in the region, particularly against the Seminole Native Americans. After Kiwi’s departure, the chapters alternated between Ava’s first person narrative that navigated the mystical and the swamp vs. Kiwi’s third person narrative is amongst the realists. As an indecisive 13 year old, Ava is both exceptionally wise and clueless beyond words. Kiwi‘s life in mainland is filled with every pain of having to grow up quickly. The mystical parts, as much as I want to embrace it, were eventually lost on me, just too, too much. It is possible that I am simply angry at what happened with Ava, and that it is further dismissed including her own thought of maybe she really wanted it. I just about blew a lid at that moment wanting to shred the book to bits.

A generous 3 stars rating because unfortunately, I will remember this book.


On lies:
“The asterisk, the Chief taught us, was the special punctuation that God gave us for neutralizing lies. One recent example would be ‘Your mother’s cancer is getting better.*’”

On old age:
“Now as a punishment for his forgetfulness Grandpa had to live at the Out to Sea Retirement Community, in a peeling umber cabin, on this refurbished and possibly haunted houseboat that he shared with a bunch of pissed septuagenarians. Grandpa’s bunkmate, Harold Clink, was ninety-two years old and almost entirely deaf and yet he would talk to you only in song, songs without rhythms, songs that he made up; we Bigtrees had all worried (some of us hoped!) that Grandpa would kill this person in the night. The houseboat was retired, too, at permanent anchor in the marina. The seniors got issued these pastel pajamas that made them look like Easter eggs in wheelchairs. If you went to visit, that’s what you saw: Easter eggs in these adult cribs, Easter eggs on toilets with guardrails. Black curtains closed the portholes.”

On growing up and catching up:
Ch 6: “When he’d used the word ‘pulchritude’ – a compliment! he insisted – in unwitting reference to another janitor’s girlfriend; he later found condoms full of pudding in his work locker and a new phrase to dissect in his Field notes, GAYASS ASSFUCKER, etched with a cafeteria knife above the locker gills. When he recited ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ hoping to impress Nina Suarez, who was wiping cigarette butts out of the whale ashtrays with a rag, Ephraim Lipmann happened to overhear him and told everybody on the Leviathan crew that Margaret Mead was definitely gay.”

Ch 20: “Kiwi thought back to his first weeks, when insults had been impossible for him. One time he’d called Deemer a troglodyte but his delivery had been tentative and way, way too slow, as if the insult were a fork tenderly entering a steak. Now he could tell any man in the World to go fuck himself with a baseball bat. Progress was being made, he guessed.”

On sex and the first time:
“Emily giggled at something bland and declarative he said, kissed the tip of his nose – sort of fell there, actually. Her head crashed into Kiwi’s shoulder. He could smell and taste that she was very drunk.
How strange, Kiwi thought, that you could want so badly to insert a part of your anatomy inside someone who you hated. Kiwi had never once seen a pornographic film. Henry Miller’s books had aroused but confused him. At some midnightish time he put a hand on Emily’s forehead – smack on it, like a TV athlete palming a basketball or a shaman attempting an exorcism – and tried to kiss her. Did he miss? His lips grazed a left eyebrow. The attempt was not repeated.” ( )
  varwenea | Mar 26, 2017 |
I really did not like this book. I had to push myself to get to the end. (fyi - #4 is a bit of a spoiler.)

The good. The writer has a gift for lyricism.

The bad.

1. A lot of tired tropes. Magic realism (I think). Suburbia is bad. Late capitalism is bad. The average joe is an idiot. Quirky settings for the sake of quirky settings. Stories within stories.

2. Thin plotting coupled with outlandish plotting.

3. But even worse than that is the bad story telling. The author would describe the action and then not know what to do next so she would insert some lyrical passage. A lot of this was annoying, over-the-top description, but there were big chunks of stuff that had nothing to do with anything. We have a little excitement going when Ava tries to escape and then we get this story about Mama Weeds. WTF.

4. The weird business with the birdman. The figure is romanticized, mythologized and then turned into very realistic abuser. It's almost like the birdman gets a pass because he's not real half the time and its not clear what happens to him in the end - if anything. And what is up with Walt? Is he complicit in the business? There was nothing good about this part of the storyline. The whole business was creepy in a bad way.

5. The New York Times listed this as one of the top 5 fiction books of 2011. Inexplicable. ( )
  nngrey | Jan 13, 2017 |
Fun story in places, but I ended up disliking this book for a number of reasons, including the strange shifts in narrative perspective, the unsatisfying conclusion, and the general ickiness of Ava's story. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
Swamplandia! was a well received 2011 novel whose author was hailed by the New Yorker and the NYT. Swamplandia!, with the exclamation mark, is the name given to the Everglades amusement park where the Bigtree family specializes in alligator wrestling. The star of the show, Hilola, the statuesque mother of our three main characters, dies of cancer early in the novel; with her loss, the park no longer attracts the crowd that used to barely sustain this dysfunctional family. Ava, the 13 year old narrator notes,
"I started to miss the same tourists I’d always claimed to despise: the translucent seniors from Michigan. The ice-blond foreign couples yoked into thick black camera straps like teams of oxen. The fathers, sweating everywhere, with their trembling dew mustaches. The young mothers humping up and down the elevated walkway to the Swamp Café, holding their babies aloft like blaring radios."
When their father goes off to the mainland to try and drum up business, and Kiwi, the 16 year old also leaves to work in a competing amusement park, Ava and her older, seance-loving sister, Osceola, are left to take care of themselves. Not long after, Ava finds herself having to go out searching for her delusional sister who has run off to marry a spirit named Louis Thanksgiving. Her poor choice of a guide, a unscrupulous character called Birdman, provides all the portent needed for a journey to the underworld.
I enjoyed the quirkiness of the characters and the wonderful description of this most unusual setting. It's impressive how this novel evolved from a short story written when the author was only 24 years old. I'm sure that Ms. Russell will continue make her mark.
Some writing samples:
As a kid I heard the word malignancy as “Malig-Nancy,” like an evil woman’s name, no matter how many times Kiwi and the Chief and Dr. Gautman himself corrected me. Our mother had mistaken her first symptoms for a pregnancy, and so I still pictured the Malig-Nancy as a baby, a tiny, eyeless fist of a sister, killing her.

"In the old days, good smells filled the kitchen (misleading smells, since our mom’s cooking strategy was to throw a couple of raw things into a greased pan and wait to see what happened, like watching strangers on a date)." ( )
  novelcommentary | Dec 22, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 177 (next | show all)
Karen Russell, one of the New Yorker's 20 best writers under 40, is certainly very talented. She received wide acclaim for her first book, the story collection St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which first introduced the Bigtree family in the story "Ava Wrestles the Alligator". This novel has already received great reviews in the US, and it's easy to see why. Many of her descriptions are quite dazzling. On the retirement boat, "The seniors got issued these pastel pajamas that made them look like Easter eggs in wheelchairs." In the swamp, "two black branches spooned out of the same wide trunk. They looked like mirror images, these branches, thin and papery and perfectly cupped, blue sky shining between them, and an egret sat on the scooped air like a pearl earring."

Over 300 pages, the density of the prose can become a bit exhausting, however, and Russell's ability to describe everything in minute and quirky detail is sometimes overwhelming.
So Ms. Russell has quite a way with words. She begins with the alligators’ “icicle overbites,” the visiting tourists who “moved sproingingly from buttock to buttock in the stands,” the wild climate (“Our swamp got blown to green bits and reassembled, daily, hourly”), and the Bigtrees’ various thoughts about the theme park’s gators, or Seths. Leaving the origin of that nickname as one of this novel’s endless lovely surprises, let’s just say that Chief Bigtree holds the reptiles in low regard. “That creature is pure appetite in a leather case,” he warns Ava. But when Ava tenderly adopts a newborn bright-red creature as her secret pet, she says, “the rise and fall of the Seth’s belly scales could hypnotize me for an hour at a stretch.”
added by smasler | editNew York Times, Janet Maslin (Feb 16, 2011)
A debut novel from Russell (stories: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, 2006) about female alligator wrestlers, ghost boyfriends and a theme park called World of Darkness.
added by smasler | editKirkus Reivews (Oct 13, 2010)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Russell, Karenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gall, JohnCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"I see nobody on the road," said Alice. "I only wish that I had such eyes," the King remarked in a fretful tone. "To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!" --Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
For my family
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Our mother performed in starlight.
The lake was planked with great gray and black bodies.  Hilola Bigtree had to hit the water with perfect precision, making incremental adjustments midair to avoid the gators.
The Chief blinked and blinked, as if he had momentarily blinded himself with his own silver lining.
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Book description
As their island home and alligator-wrestling theme park is threatened by a sophisticated competitor, twelve-year-old Ava struggles to cope with her mother's death while her sister, brother, and father all try to deal with their grief in their own unusual ways.
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This novel takes us to the swamps of the Florida Everglades, and introduces us to Ava Bigtree, an unforgettable young heroine. The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator wrestling theme park, formerly no. 1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava's mother, the park's indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava's father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL, and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety eight gators as well as her own grief. Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, the author has written a novel about a family's struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking.… (more)

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