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.
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.
“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.
I’m continuing my annual trek through the American Library Association Notable Books List, having recently finished “The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje.
This novel takes place on a ship traveling between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950’s. Its narrator, Michael, is eleven and traveling without supervision. He befriends two other young men on the ship and the three of them engage in the kinds of adventures one would expect–sneaking into the first class areas, filching food, sneaking a dog aboard.
The book’s title refers to the table in the ship’s dining room where the passengers with the lowest status were assigned. That is, of course, where one would expect to find the most interesting people–and Michael does.
About a third of the way through the book, I began to wonder where it was heading. At that point, it seemed much like a romp of a book, the mood overall light, a quirky cast of characters introduced in succession, with no sense of a narrative trajectory–no problem to solve.
And then Ondaatje introduces some evil and mystery. That dog that one of the boys sneaks aboard bites and kills a seriously ill passenger. A prisoner tries to mount an escape. Michael takes all of this in, only later figuring out how some of the pieces fit together.
At about the same point, the narrator moves away from the voyage to tell some of what happened after. He remains friends with one of his ship buddies and eventually marries that boy’s sister though the marriage doesn’t last. Decades after the voyage, he meets up with a cousin who had been aboard, a pretty young woman who at the time seemed to be involved in some mystery all her own. These time shifts continue until the novel ends with the ship’s arrival in England.
I sensed that the novel lost energy when it left the ship itself. There’s something about a ship story, a group of people confined together, that when written well becomes a delicious soup of humanity.
Each time that I read a book from the Notables list, I reflect on why it was chosen. In this case, Ondaatje is the master of elegant writing, of the effective turn of phrase. The narrator that he creates here strikes a perfect balance of a youngster’s point of view with an older man’s wisdom and regret. Reviewers often use the word “elegant” to describe Ondaatje’s writing–fine choice of words, observations that are spot on, and that sense of writing so well done that it calls no attention to itself. Applying such elegance to so quirky a group of characters as in “The Cat’s Table” is a lovely irony.
I’ll recommend this to readers who often choose more literary novels, seeking the qualities that Ondaatje weaves into this fine sea story.
Just this morning I finished Francisco Goldman’s “Say Her Name,” an autobiographical novel about the death of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada. The book has won many accolades, and is included on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List.
The basic story is that Goldman was an established writer in his early 50s when he fell in love with and in 2005 married the emerging Mexican writer, Aura Estrada, who was in her mid 20s. Just short of their second anniversary, she died following a swimming accident on a beach in Mexico.
Goldman casts the story of their courtship and marriage, her death, and his life since then, in sections that move in time and in place. It has the sense of how one would expect such a story to be told, with one memory providing a nudge that reminds the author of something else that seems unrelated and yet highlights or foreshadows what will come. This backing and forthing continues until finally at the end of the book, Goldman describes what happened on the beach that day and just after.
I was interested in why Goldman chose to tell this story in a novel instead of as a memoir. What he said in an interview in the Paris review, “I have never liked the memoir form because I tend to think that memory fictionalizes anyway. Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction.”
What a perfect book for book groups–there is the marital relationship made more interesting with the difference in their ages, the intense relationship between Aura and her mother, the striving of Aura as a writer with a dream of success, her balancing of Mexico and America, and of course the exploration of grief and loss. I doubt I’m the only reader who takes a little too much interest in what writers are like, and so book groups can add the added incentive of looking into these closets and cupboards.
I’m reflecting on my own internal score for this book–Goldman writes so well, well enough that this tribute to Aura is worthy of her, and I sensed that he was honest about himself, even when being honest meant revealing things that I didn’t much like. Thinking a little more about it, I see that this book grew on me in a way that I admire. I wasn’t instantly pulled in, but Goldman managed to make me want to know more, to continue to read about Aura, and to fathom and face his loss.