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“Swamplandia” from the Notables List

I finished “Swamplandia” by Karen Russell a couple of weeks ago. It makes me a little nervous to blog about a book that isn’t entirely fresh in my mind.

Readers may recall that “Swamplandia!” was part of the drama of the Pultizer Prize for fiction this year. It was one of the three finalists for the prize, but the committee decided that none of the finalists was worthy of the prize itself.

I picked it up because it’s on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List, and I continue to read my way through that list, having taken a brief detour through the One Book One Lincoln finalists.

In short, it’s a contemporary story set on an island just off of Florida, about a girl whose left to fend for herself when her family and the family business fall apart. It’s a fairly quirky story, with some hilarious parts, and some remarkably sad and troubling parts. I felt some queasy dissonance when quirky met evil in this book.

“Swamplandia!” is told by Ava Bigtree, a thirteen-year-old whose mother was a feature performer at the Bigtree business called Swamplandia!–in the nightly finale, she would dive into a pool full of alligators. But her mother dies, Swamplandia loses its audience to an inland theme park, her brother and father go inland on their own pursuits, and Ava takes a dangerous partner in her quest to find her sister.

When this book works, it’s because the characters are so distinctive, and yet they yearn for the usual things–love, security, and identity.

I sense that this is one of those books that most readers either love or hate. I land somewhere in between. I enjoyed reading this, but finished it primarily to check it off of my list. It was toward the end when Ava is looking for her sister that I finally felt a stronger pull.

I’m reflecting on my typical response to novels that are usually described as “quirky.” Many novels in this category read like a series of humorous images and characters without the glue of dramatic tension or intriguing relationships. I think that this accounts for my initial lack of connection to “Swamplandia!”  Even so, I’ll recommend this to readers of literary fiction who enjoy stories of unusual families or situations.

“A Death in Belmont” by Sebastian Junger

A couple of weeks ago I drove by myself to and from Denver for a short library conference. Along with Diet Coke, pretzel M&Ms, and Twizzlers, I kept myself company with an audiobook on CD, Sebastian Junger’s “A Death in Belmont” originally published in 2006.

Every few years I crave a true-crime book, and this one about the Boston Strangler came right out of that Dewey number, 364.152.

Junger is known as a nonfiction writer. He picked up this topic because his own family had a connection to the Boston Strangler. When Junger was a little boy in 1963, his parents had a studio built in their backyard in suburban Belmont. One of the subcontractors on that job was Albert DiSalvo, who was convicted of the murders attributed to the Boston Strangler. The day before the studio was finished, a photograph was taken of the Jungers and the men who worked on the job. Junger reflects on that snapshot showing his mother holding him on her lap, with Albert DiSalvo standing behind them.

Junger clearly places himself in this story, but he does a great job of backing up to describe the context, what Boston was like and how the murders impacted people.

He explores a murder done in Belmont at the time that Albert DiSalvo was working on the Junger project just a mile away. A black man named Roy Smith was convicted of that murder, proclaiming his innocence until his death behind bars. In many ways this murder was a typical Boston Strangler job, in others, not. But both Smith and DiSalvo die before full light can be shed on Smith’s case. Junger leads one to believe that Smith was very probably wrongly convicted.

Junger manages to tell this story, graphic details and all, without seeming to exploit the victims or the situation. He introduces a wide variety of people at a perfect pace, setting up a sort of chess board of characters. Kevin Conway, the narrator, maintains an even tone in his reading that reflected Junger well.

I loved “A Death in Belmont” for a traveling companion. I’ve noticed that the books that I most enjoy in audio are those with a strong narrative thread. Junger maintains this well. I was sorry when the book came to an end just before I reached Ogallala. I felt like I’d learned some interesting history, had reflected on the role of race in the early 1960s, and been told a fascinating tale by a fine storyteller.

“Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”

I took a break from my Notable Books reading for “Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. I’d heard some interviews with her earlier this year, and found her comments intriguing.

And then I had to wait awhile because there were (and are!) quite a few holds on it.

Cain’s title tells it all–she supports and values the combination of traits that characterize introversion–needing solitude for recharge, preferring one-on-one conversations over cocktail parties, focusing on one topic at a time, and a tendency for active environments to be overstimulating.

She includes research, cultural aspects, advice for romantic pairs and advice for parents.  Cain herself isn’t a researcher, but has interviewed many who are, and she has done plenty of homework in seeking out a variety of opinions.

An introvert myself, I connected with many of her observations. In particular, I saw myself in her description of the need to gear up for certain kinds of social events, almost as if going into battle. On the other hand, I haven’t sensed the scorn or disapproval of the extroverts in my life as much as she seems to have, and sometimes I felt like she “protested too much.” A personal note–I do clearly recall my college boyfriend kindly pointing out that my quietness at parties could be interpreted as my being stuck-up. And he did say so kindly. And I still remember that–it stuck with me. I would guess that quite a few introverts have received similar observations.

I’ll recommend this book to people who are interested in the many ways in which personality can be profiled, so that we understand ourselves better, and get along with others better. I’m finding myself having extended animated conversations with others who’ve read this–and so far, her audience seems mostly–introverts.

“Inside Scientology” from the Notables List

I continue in my reading of the American Library Association Notable Books List with “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” by Janet Reitman.

Reitman is a journalist/writer who was inspired to write this nonfiction book after she began writing a feature article on Scientology for the “Rolling Stone” in the summer of 2005. Her interest had been piqued by the actor Tom Cruise, a prominent Scientologist who often speaks out regarding Scientology.

Local readers may recall that Scientology’s founder, L Ron Hubbard, was born in Tilden, Nebraska, in 1911.

Reitman describes the evolution of Hubbard’s concept of “Dianetics” to the church of Scientology that exists today. I hesitate to attempt a brief description of the framework of Scientology. Foundational ideas include a belief that people are immortal souls who come back to the earth over and over. A practice known as auditing leads people to move past traumatic events that keep them from reaching their full potential. Scientology holds strong positions against much psychiatry and the prescription drugs it uses; they consider their own processes as much more successful. As people progress through auditing into upper levels of the church, they typically pay more and more money to move forward. Reitman sees money as central to the story.

Reitman seems less interested in the belief system behind Scientology, and more interested in the structure of the church, the personalities who run it, and how it raises money.

The view that she presents is primarily from outside–Scientology’s leaders did not speak with her. She relies heavily on former Scientologists, those who have left the religion, to get inside views of the structure of the church. She describes people who left the church having been treated shabbily or worse, detailing in particular the death of Lisa McPherson in 1995.

She gives an overall picture of a “church” in quotes, which she implies is actually a business that uses the cover of religion to shelter money. Further, she reveals how the personalities who head Scientology, first Hubbard, and now David Miscavage, shape the church in sometimes bizarre ways. She presents Miscavage as a sheltered young man who came to lead the church in his 20s, ill prepared for the job. She details many ways in which his direction seems irrational.

Yet she concludes with optimistically-toned interviews with young people currently engaged in Scientology.

I expect that the Notable Books committee chose this title because it brings forward information on an important topic of interest to many readers. I would point out that Reitman sometimes employs language that seems biased, describing Hubbard as a huckster, and using terms such as “concoction” that carry laden meanings. I would have preferred more measured reporting.

Even so, I’ll recommend this to readers who prefer nonfiction and who like to read about current events and issues. I was struck by the parallel stories of a belief system on one hand, and the personalities behind it on the other. That is where much of the energy in this book lies–in the end, it is a story about people.

A Notable Memoir, “The Memory Palace”

The Memory Palace: A Memoir” by Mira Bartok falls into the category of “memoirs by women with mentally ill mothers.” Others in this category include “Liars’ Club” by Mary Karr and “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls. I picked it up because it’s on this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. And–I’m a sucker for a memoir.

Here are the basics–Mira Bartok and her sister ended up changing their names and moving to cities away from Cleveland to separate themselves from their mother, who was seriously mentally ill. Bartok became an artist and writer. After a serious car accident and traumatic brain injury as an adult, she decided to take a few steps toward reconnection with her mother who by then was homeless as well.

This book stands out from the others because Bartok includes excerpts from letters that her mother wrote, and she includes pictures of her own art. These deepen her story. Her telling isn’t chronological, but it does make sense somehow, as she describes the reconciliation, and then backs up to tell what came before.

Bartok employs the image of the memory palace partly because she had to reconstruct her own ability to remember. She suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1999 at age 40, and lost much of her short term memory. She describes the memory palace as a way of remembering by creating an imaginary space where each item within the space represents something one wishes to remember, an apt description of her writing here.

As I look back on the reading and reflect on what images I will keep of this book, I will recall Bartok’s description of when she first saw her mother behaving oddly in a way that was seriously wrong, and her immediate understanding that it was something to hide. The saddest to me was that Bartok seemed to show great talent at the piano; her mother had been a prodigy. But the disorganization of the entire household kept Bartok from continuing with lessons just as she was progressing to serious music.

Bartok struggles with guilt and shame. Yet there is also a sense in which she and her sister keep their eye on the light at the end of a tunnel, knowing that their only hope is that light. Nothing here is easy, but much of it is richly focused on life and hope.

I confess that as I read this, I often silently thanked my parents for being so by-the-book in getting me to bed on time, feeding me three square meals each and every day, and insisting on a sense of order. I chafed at that, but “The Memory Palace” reminded me that there’s nothing lovely about the kind of mental chaos that puts children in true danger. I’ll recommend this to readers who love memoirs, who seek stories of resilient children, and who want to know more about families without bedtimes.