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Swamps-Creeps-Florida: Didn’t I Read This Already?

Okay, you got me.
It’s *not* literally the same book twice.
I was exagggggerrrrating.

But if posts had the tags ‘alligators’, ‘distasteful sexual content’, ‘creepy’ and ‘Florida’ –both Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks would rock the google results. Which, no doubt, is incredibly helpful to you because I’m sure you were recently on a similar search for your next novel, yes?

These two books share something else. And it’s not Russell. They have been highly acclaimed by the reviewers that have read them. When Swamplandia first hit the scene,  the NYT splashed it across the front page of its book section. Fantastical! Magical! An amazing debut novel! the reviewer raved. (May I please point out this was reviewed by Emma Donohue, another creepy author of the novel Room?) They named Swamplandia! to their 100 notable books of 2011 and added Lost Memory of Skin to join it. And then, I found myself staring at Swamplandia again on the elite list of the top 5 fiction titles of 2011. These books are exceptionally well liked. (you can feel the lingering ‘but…’ that is coming).

Here’s the conundrum. Is life long enough for TWO Florida books with creeps, sexual predators and the icky sinking feeling that goes with it? Err, sorry, me thinks not. In fact, even starting with Florida in a novel can be enough. (God bless you Zora Neale Hurston & Their Eyes Were Watching God. Still cool, sistah. Still cool.)

So here’s the deal: you gotta go with Swamplandia if you’re limited in your Everglades appetite.

Swamplandia! is exceptionally well written and its narrator Ava Bigtree relays the view of her family’s alligator theme park in the Everglades through her 13-year-old lens. Her mother, the belle of the park, has astonished audiences for years soaring off the high dive into a shallow pool of alligators and swimming to safety. It is in the shadow of her mother’s death that we watch Ava, her sister Osceola (Ossie), her older brother Kiwi, and their father Chief BigTree try to survive a rapid decline in the park’s attendance.

The ‘reality’ half of the story is adventure enough. Kiwi leaves home and takes up a minimum wage job at a ‘competing’ tourist attraction at the satirical World of Darkness. His navigation of ‘mainland life’ is complicated and only serves to show just how isolated their childhood has been. The financial difficulties and pain that Chief Bigtree faces are credible and understandable. In its simplest form, it’s a story of watching a family trying hard to not come completely unglued after the death of its matriarch. Fair enough.

But the story is paired with a fantasy story line where Ava’s big sister has disappeared and run off with her boyfriend, Louis Thanksgiving, who is a ‘ghost’. (This, I realize, is quite complicated to explain). Ava pursues her through the swamp, naively led by a letch named The Bird Man. What’s real and what’s fantasy is complicated. What is very clear is that you don’t want this young girl with this freak out in a desolate swamp. Sadly, your instinct proves correct.

Lost Memory of Skin is weightier and more thought-provoking in present day terms. It is grounded in a harsh reality, which is how society treats our sexual offenders. “The Kid” lives under a causeway in South Florida which is strategically located 2,500 feet from any school or where children play. It’s the only location in the area that meets the terms of his probation and, as a result, his neighbors in the encampment are a collection of child molesters, sexual traffickers and derelicts. They’re stuck together, sexual miscreants in their own outcast community.

The Kid’s major transgression is lots of internet porn and obsessive masturbation. He was bounced out of the Army for distributing porn tapes, …but his conflict with the law happens when he meets Brandi18 online. A sexual conversation ensues, and then a scheduled rendezvous at Brandi’s house. Ironically, the Kid is a virgin and he is incredibly nervous to meet Brandi in person. When he arrives at Brandi’s house with porn, beer, and condoms — he is met by Brandi’s father and the cops. Ouch. He learns that Brandi is 16 and he finds himself booked as a sexual predator. At 21 years of age, he has 10 years ahead of him with an ankle bracelet and a record in the national registry of sex offenders. The future doesn’t seem so bright for The Kid.

The trajectory of the story follows with his near friendship with “The Professor”, a mammoth sized sociologist at the nearby university and proclaimed local genius. The Professor wants to research sexual criminals and the relationship with homelessness. He begins to interview the kid. He helps him maintain relationships with his pets, as he thinks it promotes optimism and happiness. He provides financial support and safety in a storm–both figuratively and literally.

But The Professor is not who he seems. In a kooky twist, he reveals his past to The Kid, which is utterly confusing as the boy tries to sort through what in fact is the actual truth. It leaves The Kid in a state of loneliness that definitely triggers empathy. But the reader can’t help but feel a bit frustrated that Russell Banks slapped nearly another story onto what had up to then been a pretty good novel.

While Lost Memory of Skin poses some interesting ethical questions about reform, humanness and our own societal responsibilities — the writing isn’t nearly of the quality of Karen Russell’s. Yes, Russell Banks has been up for the Pulitzer Prize twice, but there is a reason why Karen was named to the New Yorker’s “20 Writers Under 40“. She’s talented and compelling and for that reason, I’d prioritize reading Swamplandia. If alligators and swamp fantasies aren’t really your thang–no doubt she”ll have another gem forthcoming.

She’s definitely one to watch.

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‘Marriage Plot’ Not A 2011 Best Book. Get Serious.

I’ll start with this: I luvvv (with 7 v’s) Jeffrey Eugenides.

Sure, we can start with the home town writer thang–that the Virgin Suicides looked eerily constructed on a crazy Detroit suburban reality does appeal in a sick sense. And Middlesex was the next street over from where I grew up (only those in the know got the double entendre. we are that cool, people.)

He’s an amazing writer. He’s a talent. His view is out there. He crafts a plot line which can be as narrow as a group of sisters tantalizing the high school boys over months on one square block and as far reaching as a Greek tale moving across generations, gender and geography. This guy is good, he shows range.

But do not (do not!) get suckered into the best of lists and buy this one.
This is not one of the best books of the year. Is not.
Not with a fox. in a box. in a house. with a mouse. Nope.

See, my intention is to not even dissuade you from reading this. I don’t even think that is my job. It’s not awful. It’s worse than that, it’s mediocre. It doesn’t offend really. I’m just going to release the air out of this hype balloon. Like Franzen’s Freedom, we waited a long time for Jeffrey’s reprise….so I don’t want to deprive you. But where Franzen delighted us and reminded us why we have missed him….this books makes you question if the magic is gone?

Three college students at Brown. Madeline, a NJ suburban gurl and Victorian novel intellectual falls in love with the alluring but bi-polar Leonard. Completing the love triangle is the loyal Mitchell, who is a dear friend of Maddie’s but missed his chance sophomore year when he didn’t jump Maddie at Thanksgiving. He leaves after graduation to travel the world and pursue his quest for full spirituality, while Maddie marries Leonard and makes a mess of her life. Mitchell’s letter back to her (DON”T DO IT MADDIE, DON”T MARRY HIM!) conveniently never reaches her.

At which point I find myself saying: god, am I that old? Is early twenties love that interesting? Didn’t this very story happen in 1989 at, say, a campus in Virginia? Didn’t we all miss that ridiculously nice and awesome potential future boyfriend/girlfriend while we made out with the bad apple that was clearly not a wise choice? (Mom: don’t answer that with some crazy story about Jeff D. I hear you. But don’t use this as your blog participation opportunity. Really.)

Okay, maybe the marriage part didn’t happen. But seriously, didn’t every one of us endure this (MB: charlie? JW: Ted? and JuFor and Nad, I am sorry to say I can’t even dig up the names of those boys you nearly married. Sheez, super close call.)

Here’s my point: the quality of the writing is far, far better than the quality of the story.

And so–I say reject this as a best book of 2011.

Do this instead: call an old college friend and tell twenty minutes of stories about the kook you fell in love with until the tears roll down your face at the insanity of your 20 something mind. Better use of time.

Room. Wow. Creepy.

I’m all for sordid tales about human behavior. I can handle dysfunction, death and depression. But I couldn’t handle Room, by Emma Donoghue. wait, there’s more

BookSnob’s Best Reads 2010–Or Your Money Back Guaranteed

You’ve seen everyone’s list of the top 5 fiction, top 100 books, this and that. Even your local bookstore is likely getting in on the action telling you what to buy or read.

It’s been an amazing year for great books.
So I’ll keep this short and sweet. wait, there’s more

Best Movie for 2011: Cutting for Stone

I had low expectations for Cutting for Stone. When the pull quote on the cover is from USA Today, well, it’s not a big selling point. Oh, and Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A”. Now there’s a clincher. wait, there’s more

I’ve been dating a bad book.

I could write a lot of lame excuses for why I haven’t posted in a while.

Work, kids, travel. Not to mention laziness. 

I found the culprit and it’s all very simple:
I have been caught in a bad relationship.

We spent a lot of time together, we tried to work it out, I gave second chances and final chances and I was hopeful Geoff would change. I tried to change. But he didn’t. And I didn’t.

So we broke up.

I’m to blame. I trusted one of those nifty hand written cards dangling from the shelf from “Sam” an employee at a rogue bookstore. The warning signs were there. I don’t normally hang out at this joint and he was decidedly not my type,  but hey, it seemed kind of intriguing.

Except it wasn’t.

This (god damn) paperback has flown more than 20,000 airline miles with me and yet still (still!) I am on page two seventy something. The end is in reach. And yet the weeks just slipped by.

Which of course, you can see, makes me a bit mad.

Because what am I really going to write about on my little blog about not-a-bad-book-but-not-a-good-book?
It’s just a steer-clear-from-if-you-care-about-your-time-book.

Geoff Dyer is, I’m sure, a talented writer. The novel is likely clever and intellectual and maybe even would have been the best novel I read all year, if, well, I could have finished reading it. But instead, I kept going back to chapter twenty something and re-read it for the umpteenth time and tried to get my mojo back. And move this story forward.

There was only 75 pages left and I STILL (STILL!) couldn’t get ‘er done.

Of course we all realize that a so-so book demands far more than a mediocre tv show (50 minutes) or movie (2 1/2 hours max). So why the heck do we persist? To show we aren’t a quitter? Do I really care if Geoff Dyer thinks I am a quitter????

Let’s just apply some logic here: do you recall the last time you spent 10+ hours (is it 15? 20? how long did I spend on Jeff In Venice?) doing something that was SUPPOSED TO BE FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES and well, wasn’t entertaining.

Exactly.
You need to put a bullet in it, people, and move on.

So, that behind me.

I picked up the next book on my list, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and that novel was down the chute like an ice-cold beer in a humid midwestern summer. Easy. Less than 6 days cover to cover.

So, work, kids, travel, hectic days and tired evenings…are those real excuses.
Nah. All of us will find the time to date a winner.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Simonson’s First.

I originally intended the first line of this review to say:
this book was silly.

Well, I’m not sure if anything I say after that will allow the book to recover from your ‘pass’ pile. But, I will persist anyway. Upon reflection, and a few conversations, maybe I am just being unkind?

This is Helen Simonson’s first book. One might even say an admirable first novel. And let’s face it, she also had the misfortune of following Jonathan Franzen in the queue—not a fair comparison.

As the English say: “Oh bad luck!”

Let me start here instead:
the central story to this novel is very good.

Major Pettigrew is meant to symbolize all we would expect of an elder gentlemen in a small English town. He has strong beliefs about hard work (what does his son do exactly at that ‘hedge’ fund?), decorum (you do not speak to the club’s membership director that way), justice (the Churchill guns left to he and his brother are meant to be paired together upon one of their deaths), and respect (please call me Major, not Mr. Pettigrew).

Except if Major Pettigrew is all that, he is none of that.

We would expect Major Pettigrew to do nothing but play by the rules of English society. When, in fact, he is the only one who has the courage not to.

He is the most open of all the characters, the one that grows the most and challenges the petty assumptions his society has about what to think and feel and live.

The catalyst for this change is Ms. Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper in the Village who he befriends. They share a love of reading. They share tea. To both, this mutual friendship is born in the loneliness of their widowhood and perhaps them both being slightly out of the mainstream in their own way. It ultimately grows into a deeper love.

So, the key to the story is watching Major Pettigrew navigate the social rules while doing what he pleases. His son thinks he has lost his mind, the neighbors’ tongues wag, and there is an absurd tribute to English imperialism at the country club’s summer party. Ms. Ali serves as a consultant on the Indian food they are to serve at the gala, only to shock everyone when she shows up at the Major’s guest. There are some funny scenes.

There are nuggets of an excellent novel in MPLS, but oh boy is the story cluttered.

Imagine a great beautiful tree where the trunk is strong and impressive but hundreds of useless, scraggly branches confuse the view.

We have Ms. Ali’s nephew and his religious pursuits, his failed romance.

We have the Major’s son who is a caricature of a greedy, selfish ass soon to marry a ridiculous, ugly American.

We have the Lord of the village who is engaged in a pressing real estate deal to subdivide the English countryside into high-end estates.

And on…

Simonson starts all these story lines in motion and distracts us from the main attraction—which is Major Pettigrew and Ms. Ali.

This unfortunately forces Simonson into a Hollywood ending, as she tries to desperately tie together these disparate threads into one satisfying ending. In the last 75 pages alone, we race through a called off wedding, we learn of an abortion, witness blood and murder, reflect on a spurned marriage proposal and save a suicide attempt.

No. I am not kidding.
Crazy, right?
I’m sorry, I thought this was supposed to be the quiet, bucolic countryside…

There are moments of strength and the writing is enjoyable enough.  Somewhere on my scribbles on the back page I wrote: “Underdeveloped characters and overdeveloped plot.”

I don’t want to be unkind…this is not a hard cover purchase I can in good faith recommend.

But, as the back cover states: “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

Little Bee: Can’t Tell You Nada ’bout It.

Little Bee,

I like your marketing. Well done.

You have more mystique than an Apple launch.

The cover on the back tells you: “Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.”

It’s like an engraved invitation to a page turner.

But how to review it without violating some secret Little Bee pact?

Some of our own BookSnobs have suggested this book and I have passed it again and again. The motivating factor? A woman in my book store who, unsolicited, said “Best book I read all year” while I had it in my hands. But the second reason was more powerful. Chris Cleave wrote a *stupendous* book named Incendiary that I recommended again and again. It was also terrifying subject matter and a real page turner. So, I jumped in.

But how to describe a book where you can’t really tell what it is about?

Um, it doesn’t really matter because I am not strongly recommending you read this book.

If your book group selects it, never fear, you will enjoy it and have a great discussion. But I’m pretty confident it won’t be the ‘best book you have read all year’. (I digress: I suggested to the women she read Let the Great World Spin…is she out blogging about what a lame recommender I am???)

The first 100 pages you really can’t put this book down. Right around there, when you are taken to the scene in Africa which I can’t tell you about but I can assure you, is a bit harrowing, I had to put the book down two times. I literally was collecting myself a bit. The writing is that crisp, suspenseful and captivating. It captures you like a movie captures you–blocking your eyes from a potentially threatening scene, waiting for it to be over.

But by page 200, you can’t help thinking that none of this could be even remotely real. It is kind of bizarre story built on a bizarre story built on a bizarre story. And it lost its impact.

So, how is that for unsatisfying?

You don’t know what the book is about at all, do you?

Okay, well, fughedabout the Little Bee secret pact. Here is the broad strokes. Woman on vacation with husband in Nigeria trying to save their marriage. On the beach, they run into locals who threaten them and two young Nigerian girls they encountered at the same time. Tough choices are made as to who is saved, hurt or otherwise. The story picks up with young Nigerian woman stealing away illegally to England and reconnecting with couple. Not exactly the ideal situation for a reunion. Small son involved adds to the anxiety.

Well, if you can’t stand not knowing what happens–definitely will be a page turner for August. But can’t say it is light beach reading.

Otherwise, I say take one step back and pick up Cleave’s Incendiary. But bear in mind you need an iron stomach for that one too.