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Posts Tagged ‘Swamplandia’


You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead, your next stop: Karen Russell’s third book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Sound familiar? At 31, Russell wasn’t even born when Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone transfixed millions of Americans every Friday night from 1959-1964. But she shares in the show’s legacy, its groundbreaking combination of genres — sci fi, fantasy, horror, fiction and suspense — that portrayed ordinary people crossing a threshold into the extraordinary.

A sixth sense seems to steer Russell, who has built a literary reputation by locating the uncanny in the most improbable places. A home for wayward girls became a finishing school for the daughters of werewolves in her debut short-story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.

In her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, Swamplandia! a dilapidated theme park on an island off the Florida coast yielded a Southern gothic tragicomedy about a family of alligator wrestlers and their call-and-response with the spirit realm.

In this new group of eight stories, Russell once again peers through her color-it-weird kaleidoscope to report on characters trapped in upside-down, looking-glass worlds. (more…)

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While reading and reviewing  Swamplandia! last week, I  looked into two writers Karen Russell mentioned in her acknowledgments. One was Kelly Link (like Russell, a Miami native), who writes fantasy and what is called “slipstream” fiction and has won a Hugo and three Nebula’s and has three books out: Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners and Pretty Monsters. Her story, “The Faery Handbag,” reeled me in as magically as the handbag acquired its contents.

If you called the faery handbag by its right name, it would be something like “orzipanikanikcz,” which means the “bag of skin where the world lives,” only Zofia never spelled that word the same way twice. She said you had to spell it a little differently each time. You never wanted to spell it exactly the right way, because that would be dangerous.

Read the full story here.

Another was George Saunders, of  CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. The critics love him, but always accuse him of being “dark.”

Here, in a December 2010 interview with Saunders about a recently published story in the New Yorker, the interviewer says it again: That story was dark. This one is even darker. I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but where do these ideas come from?

Saunders responds:

… One of the most truthful answers I’ve come up with is just to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, who said that a writer can choose what he writes about, but can’t choose what he makes live. Somehow—maybe due to simple paucity of means—I tend to foster drama via bleakness. If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining. And he’s made of sugar.

Saunders makes some important points, particularly about the way fiction is often mistaken for reality. I was debating this very issue last night with someone whose arm I twisted into reading Barry Hannah’s Airships. “But I don’t get it,” he told me. Hannah’s wild scenarios made no sense to him. “What’s he trying to say?”

Still, the story about the sugar-guy being cut in half on his birthday in the rain is not saying: this happens. It is saying, If this happened, what would that be like? Its subject becomes, say, undeserved misery—which does happen.

Read the rest of the interview.

I searched everywhere to find out who designed the fetching cover of Swamplandia!, as I only had a galley with no art credit. If anyone has a copy of the book, clue me in. [Update: Luther Daniels Bradley, a political cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News, did the illustration in 1899.] Lately I’ve kind of had it with book covers, especially the ones of women from the waist down—just a skirt, legs and shoes.

All the more reason to love these witty, graphic-novel covers created for the Deluxe Penguin editions of the classics—

—illustrated by contemporary graphic artists like Chester Brown (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and by two of my favorites, Canadian artist Julie Doucet (Little Women) and Dame Darcy (Jane Eyre). Best of all, the jackets fold out with added panels and designs, like de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir, above, by Tomer Hanuka.

The genius behind it all is Paul Buckley, who heads up Penguin’s design department and has gone on to commission artists for Penguin Ink, which commissioned tattoo artists to do cover designs (see below, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber), and lots more.

See the full array here with links to the artists’ websites.

Buckley talks about the series and Penguin covers in general here.

Here’s another way to refresh an old standby. One of my favorite literary quotes appeared in an unexpected location recently:

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Even if your mom wrestles alligators for a living, she’s still your mother.

Ditto if your dad runs a Florida gator-based theme park called Swamplandia! and calls himself Chief Bigtree. Family is family, and when one falls apart, holding it together can be as tough as prying the jaws of a bull alligator off your arm.

Miami native Karen Russell first introduced the Bigtrees—the Chief, his wife Hilola, son Kiwi, and daughters Ava and Osceola—five years ago in her enchanting debut collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Swamplandia! (Knopf, $24.95, 320 pp) takes up where St. Lucy’s left off, backtracking as Ava narrates the family’s history. As the novel opens, the Chief and his kids are bumbling along after the untimely death of Hilola, who not only held her family together emotionally, but was their park’s star attraction. There’s no time to grieve—as the Chief says, the show must go on.

(more…)

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