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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Pictured: Weird Stuff

Swamplandia! is a cool title with a cool cover. Let's just get that out of the way right now. It's also a pretty cool book. I don't know how much to tell you because it's one of those stories that I think the less you know about it, the better. According to Goodreads the ending is controversial, but also according to Goodreads baby animals are ugly and Kit Kats aren't gross and lame.

The basic outline is this: 13-year old Ava Bigtree is an alligator wrestler. Her family operates a theme park called Swamplandia! The park's main attraction feature's Ava's mother diving from a high dive into the alligator infested water, then swimming serenely across to the other side. Ava's mother has just died of cancer in her mid-thirties and nobody knows what's going to happen to the park.

Ava has an older sister, Osceola, who in an attempt to reach out to her mother, ends up getting pretty into ghosts. Her older brother Kiwi is a self-proclaimed genius who feels hampered by the family's lax efforts at homeschooling. Especially charming is his vast vocabulary of words he's never heard before, and therefore pronounces wrong.

Have you ever pronounced a word wrong your whole life because you've never heard it said out loud? Like bourgeois or ornery or I'm proud of you?

Also there's her dad, who insists people call him The Chief because part of the theme park's conceit is that the Bigtrees are a tribe native to the island upon which their park is located even though Ava's grandfather, the venerable Sawtooth Bigtree, was just a mainlander who got tricked into buying some terrible farmland and made the most of it. Anyway, then the story gets weird.

I've read some of Karen Russell's short stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and thought they were just great. I'm told by the internet that Swamplandia! is based on one of her short stories. This is her first novel and for the most part I think it works. Maybe there's some pacing issues in the middle, but when it gets rolling at the end you can't stop. Or I couldn't. I read like a third of it in one long, increasingly ridiculous night. I thought about it all the next day, and as far as I'm concerned, that's a sign of a good book