I just finished Swamplandia!, the first novel by one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list (the author, Karen Russell was born in, gaak!, 1981) about a family of alligator wrestlers in the Thousand Islands region of Florida. Despite that description, it’s a lot less Geek Love, and a lot more non-traditional Bildungsroman. I enjoyed the book, particularly how convincingly the environments of the characters were drawn. The details, sights, sounds and smells of the Florida swamps and jungles, and the unpleasant realities of a low-income job at an amusement park (or really anywhere else):
…the hours contracted or accordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had catalogued: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally.
The main character is the girl Ava, who narrates her half of the story in the first person, but I found I enjoyed Kiwi and his struggles on the mainland more. Once the story got going (which for me, was when all the characters had left Swamplandia!) I ripped through it in a couple days.
I hadn’t realized how much southern Florida had been destroyed by a variety of ill-advised Army Core of Engineers projects and non-native species introductions. This book, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which I read in 2009) really makes you appreciate what the place must have been like before humans got around to messing around with it.
I probably should have mentioned this sooner, but my favorite literary event is going on right now: The Morning News Tournament of Books. It’s a tournament-style “competition” where pairs of books from the previous year are stacked against each other, and a literary judge decides between them. It’s always entertaining reading, both in what the judges have to say about each of the books they review and ultimately decide between, and in the commentary at the bottom. Last year’s winner was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a book I read last year and highly recommend.
My favorite in this year’s competition is Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. Alas, it met it’s match yesterday: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I’m hoping Skippy shows up again in the “Zombie Round,” where losers that may have been unfairly judged get another opportunity to get back into the contest.
Reading what the judge had to say, and the comments, it’s clear that Egan’s book certainly deserved to win as much as Murray’s. Here’s one such comment from John Warner (Anthony Doerr was the judge):
Her books are just very alive down to the sentence level, inventive and surprising, even when you’re braced against them as with the PowerPoint story, which I also approach with a sneer, but was won over by, kind of like my attitude towards Katy Perry, and Jennifer Egan managed to do it without shooting fireworks out of her breasts. (As far as I know.)
But Warner has this to say about Skippy Dies:
Skippy Dies is one of those multi-character, many-threaded novels that manages to hold everything together all the way through to the end. For me, it was the best book of the year, superior to Freedom … The dialogue among the students is the funniest and sharpest I’ve read in years. My investment with the characters is deep and lasting. The title is no spoiler, since the titular character is killed off in the first paragraph. (It’s like Gallagher smashing the watermelons first.) As we go back in time and get to know Skippy and his friends, the heart breaks a little as his inevitable death approaches. Reading it, I got the feeling that Paul Murray put everything he had in the book. No withholding whatsoever.
As it turns out, my favorite book of last year, The Instructions wasn’t in the contest. So I’m still rooting for Skippy Dies.
I’ve read a lot of Ian McEwan over the years, and it’s impressive how different his stories are, and how precise and well written they are. On Chesil Beach is a horror of a story where a single moment is fully visualized and expertly drawn, and when it, ahem, comes, you know that things will never be the same for the characters. I guess this is McEwan’s expertise: visualizing characters suddenly drawn into situations so far from their expectation that you never quite know how they will react.
In this case, one wonders if the outcome of the story would be different if the time or place were different? I should hope that a more modern sensibility, more open dialog about intimacy, perhaps even premarital sexual investigation, would prevent the sort of misunderstanding that’s at the center of this book.
Anyway, I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t as blown away as many of the reviewers were. I do like, oddly enough, what People magazine wrote about the book:
No one can unpack a single frozen moment better than McEwan.
Montana 1948 is a book published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit press that attempts to “nurture and publish transformative literature.” I’m not sure what that means, but this is the second Milkweed National Fiction Award winner that I’ve read (The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck is the other). It’s a short little book told from the first person perspective of an adult recounting events that happened when he was twelve. It’s a simple story about family, small towns, and how each of the characters react to acts of violence against Native Americans in their community.
The main character maintains some distance from the events that take place—“I felt a contentment outside human society that I couldn't feel within it.”—and so he allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about what drives the other characters to do what they do. The author is very good at evoking the feel of the time and place of the story. An enjoyable read.
It’s a good looking book too, with a slightly shorter and wider page size than is typical, and a nice thick shiny cover. It’s typeset in Perpetua, which is a font I like, but I felt like the italics were too small for the body text (see the image below). I’m not sure how this would happen unless it’s an intentional feature of the font set. It looked funny to me.
Finished Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl this morning. This is apparently a rewrite of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Never having read Flaubert, I wouldn’t have recognized the similarities, but I doubt if I’d enjoy that book as much as The Bad Girl. Lydia Davis just re-translated it into English (“the English translation it deserves”, according to Kathryn Harrison in the New York Times), so maybe it’s worth a read.
The book is written from the first-person perspective of Ricardo Somocurcio, covering his entire life. As the bad girl disappears and reappears, she throws his life into chaos, ecstasy, and ruin each time. He’s unable to overcome his love for her, regardless of the depths she plumbs in her quest to make a life for herself and escape the poverty of her family. It isn’t the most compelling plot, but Somocurcio tells a very entertaining tale, and anyone who has experienced the ways that love defeats reason will understand what he goes through. It’s also something of a guilty pleasure to witness how the bad girl uses her power over Somocurcio (and the other men she exploits) to get what she wants, and observe the train wreck when she moves on.
I only highlighted one line in the book. I don’t think it characterizes the message of the book, but perhaps one of them: “In this life things rarely happen the way we little pissants plan them.” I wonder what word was actually used in the Spanish original, and translated into pissant here?
Good book. I’ll be reading more Vargas Llosa in the future, starting with The War of the End of the World, which is considered to be his best novel.