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Swamplandia!

by Karen Russell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,9992073,133 (3.35)1 / 426
Twelve year old Ava must travel into the Underworld part of the smamp in order to save her family's dynasty of Bigtree alligator wresting. 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)
  1. 50
    Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (BeckyJG)
  2. 20
    Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (andomck)
    andomck: Swamps are crazy, man
  3. 31
    One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (BeckyJG)
  4. 20
    Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Replete with eccentric families and mythic overtones, these larger-than-life novels are exuberantly offbeat. Big Fish depicts a son's quest to know his dying (and lying!) father better, while Swamplandia! relates the struggle of two pre-teens to protect their family's alligator-wrestling theme park.… (more)
  5. 00
    Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (booklove2)
  6. 22
    Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (andomck)
    andomck: Both books have characters going from a somewhat dismal reality and escaping into an adventurous fantasy world.
  7. 00
    Run by Ann Patchett (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: These character-driven novels share a theme of unconventional families coping with mothers taken by cancer. Russell's setting gives a strong sense of place in Florida, Patchett's an atmospheric Boston. Honest, thoughtful, thorough portrayals of complicated characters and relationships distinguish both.… (more)
  8. 00
    Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (booklove2)
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    Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix (andomck)
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    Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version {original edition} by Philip Pullman (andomck)
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English (205)  French (1)  All languages (206)
Showing 1-5 of 205 (next | show all)
There is much to admire in this book: compelling characters, virtuoso writing and especially description, an interesting and novel setting (the decrepit island where the aging theme park Swamplandia! slowly crumbles back into the Florida swamp). The opening, where Hilola Bigtree, the protagonist's mother, dives into an alligator-infested pit is worth the book alone. Russell owns the swiftly drawn vignette -- the tourists, the manager at World of Darkness -- and paints a vivid world were Ava Bigtree, after losing her mother and progressively losing her other siblings, father and Swamplandia! itself, must come to terms with her family's faults and strengths and see the world outside of their odd enclave.

This was an especially lovely paragraph from Ava's point of view, as she realizes how much she misses her mother:

I was consumed by a helpless, often furious love for a ghost. Every rock on the island, every swaying tree branch or dirty dish in our house was like a word in a sentence that I could read about my mother. All objects and events on our island, every single thing that you could see with your eyes, were like clues that I could use to reinvent her: would our mom love this thing, would she hate it?

I other through of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film, which I saw before reading this (even though I think the book preceded the movie). Both use place and children in similar and effective ways.

My difficulty started about a third of the way through, as Russell increasingly moves into magic realism, without, I think, the kind of sure and character-grounded steps that are essential to keep me hooked. Magic realism is great, but the realness has to still be there, grounded in character and not, as seems to happen here, in what the plot demands. Ava's sister Osceola, seems especially manipulated, "needing" to find ghostly boyfriends in the woods, but in an increasingly unrealistic and un believable way.Ava is a very unreliable narrator and we know that. Sometimes it works and sometimes I thought, "Well a girl that smart and that perceptive would have to see through this." Also, Russell's talen sometimes leads her off a cliff in terms of description. Mixed metaphors about and pile onto one another, a bit like alligators in a pit. A character "pounds sugar like a horse" (57) -- huh? The World of Darkness just didn't work for me -- I couldn't see why anyone would go there or what the theme way (whales, undersea, devils, Hell). The place seemed like a made-up place by an author who is striving for wacky and weird, not something that is essentially wacky and weird (Swamplandia! in contract, totally works). ( )
  MaximusStripus | Jul 7, 2020 |
Karen Russell filters sunlight and nostalgia onto the page. This was the first book in a long time that would not wrestle itself from my hands. The characters and the story got into my brain and splashed around in there, happily displacing the muck of my everyday life.
In the acknowledgments, Karen Russell thanks George Saunders, Katherine Dunn and Kelly Link for their inspiration. Oh how I wish that I could see the supposed genius in Kelly Link's writing like I do in Karen's. ( )
  gakgakg | May 28, 2020 |
I loved the idea of this novel, so much. Which is why I was thoroughly excited when my local library finally got a copy of the audiobook, narrated by a young sounding teen girl (mostly). The story is strange, the title is awesome, and the setting and characters are completely foreign to me ... What with the alligators, swamps, ghosts, a bird man, and Florida and all. But did I have fun, throughout the novel? Did I enjoy it as much as I thought I would....?

Unfortunately, not so much... Russell is clearly a talented writer with a cutting sense of humor (of which she shows a few hints in the beginning), but this story is one that I'd love to have changed direction, or something. I incorrectly interpreted the strangeness of this book to be something mystical and otherworldly, like Alice in Wonderland, only in Florida. At first, like our heroine Ava, I was inspired to believe that interesting things -things that defy the laws of the universe- were afoot. But then, also like Ava and the rest of her family, I was cruelly stomped on by the real world. For poor Ava, this doesn't even begin to cover it. What the utter hell was Russell thinking....? Ugh, I utterly HATE it when things like this happen to young characters like Ava.

By the end, Russell makes it clear that there is no magic or wonder to be found here, only horribleness. This is not a swampier Alice in Wonderland ... more like a swampier version of a Stephen King novel crossed with a police blotter. There is a LOT in this book is dark and ugly. At first this seems interesting and edgy, but there's no payoff. Some storylines were just left to lie rotting in the swamp, never to be heard from again. And While the teens in this novel were quirky and interesting, while talking like they were throwing up parts of their musty thesaurus, i still didn't get WHY they all had to do what they did. This didn't seem cleared up enough, for me.

And for me, this story doesn't accomplish anything other than make sure the reader is more despondent about the world by the final page. That, and perhaps convincing many to never visit Florida. The thought of the mosquitoes alone is enough to make anyone stay home, in the comfort of their air conditioned flat. Hopefully, Russell tries harder with her later novels, to keep the storyline, and the characters from meandering all through the swamps of Florida....... and maybe not making me wish I lived in Alaska. I don't think I could handle another story like this. Believe me, I don't need all my stories or novels all wrapped up in a Happily Ever After bow, etc, etc. But this story really rubbed me the wrong way I guess. And having a young, fragile sounding teen girl read the narration? Yuck. I have to go read some comics or something, now. 3 stars.

( )
  stephanie_M | Apr 30, 2020 |
I had heard good things about this book and finally got to it on audio. While I liked the premise and the course of the story, the narrator completely ruined it for me. I understand the main character is a young girl but this narrator verged on unprofessional, mispronouncing words and flat delivery. Some of the chapters were 'narrated' by her older brother but he was not much better. His inflection was better but still mispronounced words. I guess if you're going to tackle this one do it in print. ( )
  jldarden | Apr 27, 2020 |
The only world that Ava Bigtree has ever known is that of Swamplandia!, her family's island home in the Florida Everglades that also doubles as an alligator theme park. The star of their show is Ava's mother and when her mom dies, the park, and Ava's family, falls apart. Ava's father goes to the mainland to find some investors, her brother leaves home and joins a rival theme park and her sister runs off with her ghost boyfriend. Ava finds herself on a mission through the swamp to save her family.

This is the first time I've come across Karen Russell and it's my understanding that this novel is an expansion on one of her previous short stories. I was completely surprised by how much I liked this book. I found Ava and Ms. Russell's writing engaging. Ms. Russell has a commanding use of vocabulary and language. More than once I thought "now that's a $10 word." The story is unique and fun. There were parts of it I didn't like and some things that I thought could have been better explained but overall a very enjoyable read. I'm thinking about looking up some of her short stories and checking those out.

"The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn't see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!'s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, a middle and an ending. . . . I didn't realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another - bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bates out of a cave." (pg. 8-9) ( )
  melrailey | Apr 7, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 205 (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)
 

» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Russell, Karenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gall, JohnCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
"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
Dedication
For my family
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Our mother performed in starlight.
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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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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