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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Some of my favorite things in life are eating chocolate, learning about new things, and uninterrupted sleep (preferably through the night). Swamplandia! helped with ONE of those. It was fascinating!

This ambitious novel, written by the twenty-nine year old Karen Russell, was buzzing around on some must read lists for 2012.  Swamplandia! is a theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. It’s an almost fantastical place with gator wrestling, sensational Everglades memorabilia, a quasi-historical museum and an endangered family called the Bigtrees.

Ava is a thirteen year old girl. She has an older brother, Kiwi, and an older sister, Osceola. Her family is normal in a sense that they love each other, they have history and they are alive. But they are also a little strange. They live isolated but fulfilling lives on one of the alleged Ten Thousand Islands (not our Ten Thousand Islands) of the Florida Everglades. The Bigtree family’s connections with the rest of the world are few. One is an old  houseboat that serves as an outdated library for the very scattered community of islanders. The other is the ferry that brings tourists back and forth from the mainland to adventure in Swamplandia!

Hilola Bigtree is the mother of this family and she is also the main gator wrestler!  (exclamation point was not really necessary in this sentence) She’s good; a good showman and a good mother. But she dies quickly of cervical cancer leaving her family fragmented,  and the struggling theme park without its headliner.

Simultaneous to Hilola’s death and Swamplandia!’s fizzle is a mainland theme park opening called The World of Darkness. Tourists stop coming and the family’s way of making a living and surviving in the proud Everglades impossible due disheartening big corporation market push over.

The mourning children deal with their deep loss. Kiwi leaves the island for the mainland with intentions to make money and save Swamplandia! He ends up getting a job at The World of Darkness as a janitor.

Osceola becomes a spiritualist  using an Ouija board to try and contact her dead mother. Unfortunately, her mother is not accessible and she starts dating ghosts of young men.

Ava trains with great diligence, dreaming to be the next Hilola Bigtree, the best gator wrestler in the world. She tends and trains the gators in their pit as hard as her thirteen-year-old self can. 

Their father leaves the island to save the bankrupt island. The children believe he is meeting with investors for a few weeks, but he is actually working on the mainland as well. Kiwi is gone, and Osceola and Ava are left on their own to tend to the gators and the island. Osceola starts to become more and more bizarre. She runs away, deeply in love with a dead dredgeman to elope in The Underworld, which is where dead people go.

Ava wakes up alone with a note explaining the run away, and a promise ringing in her ears to her brother about keeping their whimsical sister grounded. She sets off with a strange, transient man who is known by locals as the Bird Man, a transient middle-aged man who scares away troublesome birds. The Bird Man’s appearance is serendipitous because he tells Ava he knows the way to The Underworld and can help save her sister.

Evil and hardship await the siblings as they follow their own way to save their realities. In the end it seems that people must be adaptable to the way the world changes. Even if it is for the worse.  Because life can always be full of love.

Why?

Swamplandia! is eerie and haunting. Some parts reminded me of The Dead Marshes of Tolkien and even though the Everglades is a real place, the book feels like a fantasy. It’s fabulously alluring and Russell uses amazing imagery to pull it off.  In the scene where Ava and the Bird Man are setting out, one lovely sentence reads like this:

We poled around the scummy crystals of the oyster beds and made a beeline for the mirror-like slough. I watched a line of water creep up his pole as the channel deepened, like the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer, and then we broke into wild sun (page 160).

This movie is Tim Burtonesque, complete with a creepy and unreadable Johnny Depp character. I think people would enjoy the humour and stunning beauty that Ava sees. Russell draws her alive, and gritty, although slightly more mature than thirteen would allow; she is easy to root for and connect to.

Swamplandia! is thick with details. Russell knows the world of the Everglades well, and the history portrayed in the novel about the land and the people who survive there is rich and enthralling. Also, every time that Swamplandia! is printed in this lovely tome, Swamplandia! has an exclamation mark on it. It’s details like that which really won me over. 

This book made me do a lot of online research about the Everglades. I now want to go there someday and I love books that expose me to new and exciting places. Everglades is an amazing place! I read some cool stuff here: Everglades in Wikipedia, and the government website for the national park.

I also enjoyed the theme of old vs new, of history vs progress. Swamplandia! was old-fashioned and a bit out of touch with popular culture. The World of Darkness (Read: World of Disney) represents the large-scale corporations that have all but taken over the States (and Canada). Russell also talks about survival of the fittest.

The tension between these two ideas makes for a thought-provoking read. Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

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Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

Who?

  • Women
  • Fans of the Midwife of Venice (this is a MUCH better book)
  • Canadian History fans (are there any out there?)

The Book:book cover of bride of new france

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers  is about the “filles du roi” or King’s daughters. In the late 1600 the King of France paid for young women to move to New France to help populate the settlements.  These women were usually orphans from the poor houses of Paris.  The women married the ex-soldiers or officers already settled in New France. Prior to the King’s efforts these men seemed more interested in reproducing half-native half-french children.

Most of the women who came as a Filles du Roi had no experience in farming or sustenance living. It was a lonely life, one that would need a great deal of resolve and bravery to survive. Desrochers imagines this world through the eyes of the young woman Laure. Her spunk get’s her sent from Paris overseas on a six-week journey to the great wilderness of Canada.

Laure shows us the new world in its beauty and strangeness. She marries a man who seems decent enough, but she is left for most months of the year along while he traps animals and gallivants around with the native women.

Laure meets a young Iroquoian man. He is rough and crass, but eventually they fall in love and have a clandestine affair. She becomes pregnant as a result. I will not spoil anymore details, but she learns to comes to term with the life she must live in the new world. Laure is also able to see the opportunities available to her as a woman living in New France.

Read It?

I picked up this book for a few reasons.  I’ve always been a bit of a history buff and this book, set in the late 1600s, was a historical fiction fix.  It’s sometimes difficult to find Canadian historical fiction maybe because of an inferiority complex about our proud past.

I also have a soft spot for début books (which this is), as I enjoy new voices in Canadian Literature.  This fiction started out as a Master Thesis for Desrochers at York University. It is well researched and fully conceivable as Desrochers brings this time in history to life.

But I cannot wholly recommend this one.  I enjoyed the story enough. The plot held my attention because of its setting, but Desrochers’s introspection came through too strongly in the character Laure.  It really felt forced and I kept telling Desrochers (telepathically) the old writers motto “show don’t say.”

Laure is flat, unbelievable and too neutral or reserved to cling to.  However, if you enjoyed the Midwife of Venice, you may enjoy this one and it’s much more historically sound.

Cheers!

 

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The Book Thief by Markus Kuzak

My first reaction to this book was WOWZERS!

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief cover

What a gorgeous book.

I turned to the last pages and found a young adult study guide at the back. As it turns out, the book is actually considered a young adult book. WHAT?!? So, second reaction was, I was reading a teen book, and didn’t notice!

I am both flabbergasted about what defines youth fiction, and amazed at the care and time put into this book. What an amazing piece of fiction. Zusak in The Book Thief has given me a story I will remember for the rest of my life.

The Book Thief is set in the years of the Second World War, in Germany. The main character is a ten-year old girl named Liesel whose mother is bringing her to a foster home. Her mother must leave them because, for reasons unknown to the reader, she can no longer take care of Liesel or her brother. On the train ride there, Liesel’s brother dies.

Enter: the narrator. He makes his grand entrance by taking away the soul of her brother. This is the crux of the book and what makes it so brilliant. The narrator is death. It is a unique literary technique to personify something so tangible, yet universally feared. And it also gives something to the book that makes it very much alive (ironically). Zusak makes the book bearable, for such a sensitive soul as myself, with humour and reality. At this time, death is busy. He is busy taking souls away all over the world. But death, as portrayed in The Book Thief is tongue-in-cheek funny, poetic and sensitive. We know he has feelings for those left behind.

We follow beautiful and vivacious Liesel, through her adolescence. But the reality of her pubescent years is a harsh one, with bomb shelters, Hitler Youth meetings, and stealing from farmers because they have nothing but watery (pea) soup. The author impressed me with the absoluteness that life and love fill the cracks of human brokenness and suffering.

Hans, her foster father teaches Liesel to read, and she becomes the book thief, someone who steals books because she loves them so much (naturally I can relate to a love of books). The snatching of literature become the foundations of her life and soul. Giving flight to her thoughts and helping her to make sense of the grave world around her.

The most significant character in the book is Max Vandenberg, a hunted Jew who comes to Hans for hiding. In World War One Max’s father saved Hans’ life. To return the favour, they hide Max and feed him, but his spirit is broken, and he wishes to hide like a rat in the cold dark basement.

It is Liesel, and her vitality, that keeps him alive. She reads to him, and listens to his stories and they soon develop a depth of friendship that can allow their souls to survive Nazi Germany. In one moving chapter, Max rips out pages from his copy of Mein Kampf. He paints over the words with white paint and hangs them to dry. He than writes a story with black paint over top of the pages about surviving and about being alive.

The end of the novel is hard to get through. It is sad. But I also felt prepared for it, because in this world is death really a surprise? It is the hope that the life of those remaining continues even after the death of loved ones. For some reason, the reader is comforted as well, by the fact that life was so present before hand.

Why?

I think most people have a general interest in WWII. If you like to read about the social history of war-time in Germany, this book would interest you. It is also unique, because the perspective of a nonconformist German family during WWII is somewhat uncommon in literature. But even if that doesn’t really interest you, the characters are memorable and the writing is dazzling and full. Zusak is a talented author, with emotion spilling out of the words he writes.

In the beginning, it took me a bit to get a hold of the narrative. It was hard to place the narrator, and for good reason (but once you realise who the narrator is, you can jump right in).

The only other issue I have with the book, is that I had never heard of it.

It was published in 2006, but it was marketed as a young adult book. I think it could have been more broad than that. The book deals with love, loss, lust, survival, death and war. These are done in a mature and thought-provoking way. Please, do yourself a favour and read this one.

Cheers!

The author’s website is worth a perusal (if I piqued your interest).  An interview with him about The Book Thief can be found here.

Or read the first chapter of The Book Thief.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Interested In?

  • depression in literature
  • historical fiction (Brit-Lit)
  • playful characters

The Book:

The book shoves the reader into the lives of  two main characters, Sir Winston Churchill and Esther Hammerhans.  It’s a book with chilling insight into depression, something which Churchill was dogged by his whole life.  At a pivotal moment in the novel, when Esther meets Sir Winston, Churchill ponders:

But something about Esther disturbed him. Hello, what’s this? There was a quality to her…Yes, a strange energy about her, a dying star in the sky of her face.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, is a novel giving face to the illness that plagued the historical character of Sir Winston, and the fictional character of Esther Hammerhans.  The protagonist is depression, or as Churchill was known to call it, his “black-dog”.  Black Pat is an ugly character, who intrudes on both Sir Winston and Esther.  Black Pat follows them around and whispers dark, untrue things about them, or slobbers on their clothes, or sheds on their beds. Black Pat ruins their concentration, drinks their alcohol and becomes an itch they can’t scratch.

Set the days prior to Sir Winston Churchill’s retirement from politics, Sir Winston feels the presence of Black Pat almost constantly. He mourns the loss of his career and his busy-ness. He is sorrowed by the quietening of old age. At the end of his career (he’s 89!) rather than reflect on his mistakes and achievements, we find him reflecting on the effect that mental illness had on his life.  In one of the most beautiful lines of the book, Winston says to Black Pat:

You are a dark star in the constellation which forms me. And to fight against you is to try and fight the stars in the eternal firmament.

Churchill has known the darkness of Black Pat his entire life and he suffers for it.  His character’s resolution seems no more than resignation, until Churchill meets Esther.

Esther Hammerhans is mourning the two -year loss of her husband. She feels alone until Black Pat knocks on her door. Black Pat, a man-sized dog, his talk fills up her empty emotional life with both disgust and pity at the same time. She allows him to board with her because she feels so alone. The book is playful with this relationship, and the reader is struck by absurdity of a grown women renting out a room to a talking dog. As Esther learns who Black Pat represents in her life, she also learns truths about her husband and his death that are essential to finally letting him go.

The climax of the novel is the meeting between these two fated individuals. Esther’s boss at the House of Common’s Library nominates her to type out Churchill’s retirement speech. As mentioned in my first quote, Sir Winston recognizes Esther is suffering in the presence of Black Pat.  Churchill urges her to push him away and be stronger. At the end of the novel, the reader cheers with Esther as she overcomes her bout of depression.

Worthwhile?

I found this book a clever and insightful illustration of depression. I would recommend it to anyone.

The issues of depression and myself cannot be isolated. And so I speak from experience when I say that this book was fairly realistic. Most significantly this novel, made me ponder a great deal about depression in history. Specifically the developments of modern psychiatry and medicine. I felt the most for Sir Winston, and for his dysthymia. It haunted him. I was impressed with his ability to survive.

Hunt also makes some very clear distinctions between Esther, who was suffering from a depressive episode, and Sir Winston, who had chronic depression. Esther was able to combat her depression with some changes, Churchill however had to come to terms with his illness and to live with it.

Hunt’s character development is brilliant.  Black Pat is deplorable and disgusting, pathetic and alive.

Overall a refreshing read, and very impressive for a first novel. Although it dealt with a deep issue, the reader did not feel plagued by pages upon pages of introspection and remorse. The novel is only 211 pages, and I assure you they pass quickly. For anyone interested, at the bottom of Penguin UK’s write up about this book is a brief interview with the author.

Cheers!

Elijah catching snow flakes

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan

For Readers interested in:

  • historical depictions of early Canadian life, specifically Newfoundland.
  • women’s issues (control over their own bodies, midwifery,etc.)

Sheilagh's BrushThe Book:

Sheilagh’s Brush by Maura Hanrahan was a rapid and memorable read, full of depth and perception.  Thankfully, I happened upon this book on the library shelf. It is set in coastal Newfoundland, where life in the 20s and 30s was grueling and unrewarding. Sheilagh is the main character, a young woman belonging to a tight community called Rennie’s Bay. At the very beginning of the novel, Sheilagh has nearly died in childbirth. Hanrahan pulls us into the harsh realities of life on the coast with the first sentence:

“The nurse is certain this baby will not live.”

Sheilagh has delivered her daughter named Leah and is attended by the district nurse, the local midwife, her mother, and her sister Claire. Leah is premature and she spends the first weeks of her life inside a “just-warm” oven, coming out only for feedings. Leah does live, despite the nurse’s concerns.

Life continues for Sheilagh, as she spends her time caring for the needs of her family, or putting up food for the long winters. The depictions are not a simplified, agrarian idealism. This is a book depicting the gritty realism of eating nothing but fish and cabbage day in and day out.  People die regularly of common diseases,  and one looks forward to small things like the Christmas dance all year, because it is the only time to have fun.   The community must rely on each other to survive, for good or ill.

What keeps Sheilagh’s spirit alive and joyful is the love she feels for her daughter Leah. Sheilagh loves her husband Peter, but they often disagree or are disconnected from each other’s realities. She does not wish to go through childbirth again although her husband tells her he would like a son. Sheilagh secretly rejects the authority of her husband over her own body by using birth control.

Claire, Sheilagh’s sister, feels called to greater things than the sustenance scraping of Rennie’s Bay. She tosses aside the love of a handsome young man of her community. Claire gathers her courage and leaves Rennie’s Bay, rejecting the hold of the community.

Through both of these narratives, the reader is also given glimpses of the local midwife and her role of healing in the community. With the same objectivity, we are privy to the thoughts of the district nurse and her sorrow in tending to the physically horrid lives of the people in these remote communities.  The nurse was often broken by people’s readiness to use superstition and prayers, rather then simple medical procedures. One woman dying at fifty,  felt that she had lived a long and good life.

The Point:

This was a powerful book. It is short and wonderful addition to Canadian Literature. I continuously thought of The Birth House, by Ami McKay (click here for my review), because it is a similar setting in time and place. But, all the complaints I had with The Birth House are redeemed in this book. Sheilagh’s Brush covers the same issues realistically, rather than idealistically. Hanrahan reveals the story with elegance, without pushing her own agenda.

The characters were vivid and historically faithful. The novel captured the complexity of a cast of characters that I appreciate so much in a novel.  We feel for Sheilagh’s desire to not have children, but we also feel sorry for Peter, who just wants a son to work with him someday.

The most compelling and intelligent part of the novel, was Hanrahan’s theme of traditional medicine vs modern medicine. In The Birth House, it was very clear readers were meant to feel that modern medicine was the enemy, and had taken away the respectful and traditional ways of women. That view is entirely too simplistic.

Sheilagh’s Brush shows both sides.  The reader sees the midwife’s lifesaving care through keeping premature Leah in a make-shift incubator. But we also see the bizarre superstitions that cause harm, such as putting an axe under the birthing bed to take away pain (rather than giving pain medication in a hard labour). The midwife  insisted on weaning all babies at nine months lest the mother should poison their babies through their milk.  The nurse knows these things are only superstious traditions, and still tries to work within them to bring relief to people.

If you liked The Birth House, and it’s themes, please read this one. It is not lighthearted, but it is stunning and realistic.

ALSO: Go ahead and read my review of The Birth House.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

For Readers interested in:

  • Gender issues
  • Relationships between parents and children
  • Unique coming of age books

The Book:

I finished this one up in a flash! Kathleen Winter has created such an easy and beautiful read, with a heartfelt plot and memorable characters. This book is about a little person born in the late 1960s to a mother and father in Labrador. The birth of this child is a happy occasion, but filled with secrets. This beautiful and perfect child was born ( as is 1-2% of the general population) with gender ambiguity. Treadwater and Jacinta decide to call the baby Wayne, and to bring the child up a male. His vagina is surgically closed, as is this side of his identity.

As Wayne grows, he find himself caught between his mother who is comfortable with his duo expression of sexuality and his father who is not. Wayne’s parents love him very much, but they are unable to help him with his gender confusion, especially as he grows older and has to take hormones to turn his body into a man. Wayne doesn’t fit in with the other boys while growing up.

Wayne learns the truth about his gender in high school. He has to have an emergency operation to clear out menstrual blood from his closed vagina. Wayne feels alone and confused. He leaves Labrador for the mainland and finds a job in St. John’s. Wayne tells his family that he wants to stop the hormone therapy, and let his nature take over, for better or for worse. This frightens him and his father, but it is something Wayne feels he must do.

Wayne starts to become more feminine. An acquaintance notices, and sexually assaults Wayne. He becomes frightened and alone. His father, hears the news of his rape and leaves Labrador for the first time to come and support his son. Treadwater realizes that although he is unhappy that Wayne has stopped his hormones, the love he feels for the person, Wayne, is strong. His father’s love remains constant despite Wayne’s own identity inconstancy.

This book was a good one. I read it quickly, and had a hard time putting it down. I thought Wayne was a beautiful and gentle person. Someone I would love to be friends with. The characters were well-developed and involving.

Kathleen Winter’s strength is in her soft and supple narrative. Winter is also clever, there was often quite a bit of ambiguity in the language used to describe the Labrador landscape. Using intersexuality as a metaphor for her homeland – a between place that can’t be defined clearly. The plot is not for everyone, but I was drawn to it. It is intriguing to contemplate issues of gender. I finished the novel deeply sympathetic for Wayne. I felt like the 2% or so of the population that are born intersex are not treated with respect in our culture.

A book for everyone? Not really. It deals with sensitive gender issues that might make some people feel uncomfortable. But I found it fascinating and reminds me of two other novels I’ve enjoyed with intersexuality themes. One: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides which uses the theme of intersexuality to explore the plight of American immigrants; and two: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaege. Thinking about Vanderhaege has made me excited. I think I am going to reread The Last Crossing and review it soon!

Also, I found a great blog for people interested in Atlantic Canadian fiction. Here is a review of Annabel from Salty Ink. It’s a blog that promotes literature set in Eastern Canada.

There are two other books I’ve reviewed set on the East Coast (Cape Breton and Newfoundland):

  1. The Birth House by Ami McKay
  2. February by Lisa Moore. (click on the titles to read them).

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

Who?

  • Short story lovers.
  • Those who like current American literature

The Book:

I was interested in the hype around this book, and Maile Meloy is an awesome handle ( I often have a quirky reason for being interested in a book). This book was also on a few recommendation lists (here, and here). Both Ways is the Only Way I Like It may be an awkward name, but it’s not an awkward read. This collection of short stories feels very American. (I’ll explain later) I generally focus my attention on Canadian literature, mainly because I enjoy it more and there is usually less online about them. While reading this book, I felt like I was peeking into a different culture in a way I wouldn’t have expected. The stories are all set somewhere in Middle America.

The stories centre on the theme of parents and children. Or, more broadly, being responsible or irresponsible. My favorite story was the first one, about a crippled polio cowboy who is in love with a woman from a random encounter. I also enjoyed the story about a man whose wealthy grandmother shows up on his doorstep after being dead for a month. The characters were decent, and the plots concrete.

I didn’t love the book, and I didn’t hate it either. What I couldn’t really figure out was why it was listed as a best seller for so long. What made it so popular? Her name? The Americans’ great love of short stories?

Meloy’s narrative was too similar for each character. The only truly memorable ones were the two I mentioned (in my humble opinion). It felt like I was reading 11 different life plots for the same character.

But certainly, the themes of the short stories held my attention, and as the title suggests, show the incongruent feelings that lie beneath us: how we want to be the child and the parent. We want to inherit money from people we don’t like, but we don’t want to pretend we like them. We want to have wild, surprising sex, but we don’t want to hurt our spouses and have an affair. We want to be protected, but also independent. Meloy did well to show this commonality. I don’t know, it might just be an American thing – like the unabashed love of processed cheese ( just kiddin’).

Cheers!


Like this?

You might also like my other articles…

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud
Generation A by Douglas Coupland
Unless by Carol Shields