Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia! tells the familiar story of a death in a family and what happens to the surviving members, but it tells the story in an unfamiliar way. The Bigtree family puts on alligator wrestling shows at a theme park in the Florida Everglades. When the mother, Hilola Bigtree, passes away she leaves behind her husband Chief Bigtree, daughters Ossie and Ava, and son Kiwi. Hilola was the star alligator wrestler at Swamplandia, the family’s theme park, but the tourists quickly stop coming after her death and soon the theme park is all but shut down.

The remaining members of the family head off in different directions. Ossie becomes obsessed with the occult and eventually proclaims to Ava that she has married a ghost. Ava wants to replace her mother as the next great Bigtree alligator wrestler but eventually, after Ossie disappears, goes off to search for her with a strange drifter called the Bird Man. Chief Bigtree leaves for business on the mainland that he says could raise money to save the park, and Kiwi, unimpressed with the chief’s plans, heads to the mainland himself in hopes of making a fortune and sending part of it back to Swamplandia. (He doesn’t realize for much of his mainland adventure that no one is at Swamplandia.) Kiwi’s dreams of success quickly turn into an entry level custodial job at The World of Darkness, the rival theme park that helped drive the last nail in Swamplandia’s coffin. The home schooling Kiwi received growing up in Swamplandia helps him little at The World of Darkness, and his social ineptness is at times an even bigger obstacle. For example, he tries to woo a female coworker by reciting Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to her.

There are dozens of other odd occurrences in Swamplandia!, but all this weirdness is held together by terrific writing, strong characters, and impressive development of the novel’s different settings. Karen Russell is definitely a young writer I’ll be keeping my eye on.


Monday, June 18, 2012

The Book of Mormon by Paul Gutjahr
Cover imageSince the possibility exists that our country may elect its first Mormon president in 2012, it's important for voters to learn something about its Sacred Scripture.  The Book of Mormon: a Biography is the newest offering in the "Lives of the Great Religious Books" series.  It is accessible to the layperson and does a fine job of educating the reader and comparing the Book of Mormon to the Bible.  It profiles Joseph Smith, who was visited by the angel Moroni and instructed to unearth the gold plates that contain the revelation of Jesus to the New World.  The book then details Smith's efforts to translate the plates and have them published in 1830.  This event marked the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the book also covers the growth of the church after Smith was murdered in 1844.  Positing that the Book of Mormon has become part of our culture, Gutjahr also surveys performing arts, graphic arts and publishing history to discover the ways it has been treated in  print, on canvas, on film and, most recently, on Broadway.

If you enjoy this book, you will also like Bible: the Story of the King James Version 1611 - 2011 by Gordon Campbell.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale

Cover imageBenjamin Hale’s debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is an extremely bizarre and also extremely well-written tale of a chimpanzee named Bruno who evolves from a caged animal in a zoo to an educated creature who can speak and pass for human (or at least a very short, disfigured one). Bruno first comes to the attention of primatologists at the University of Chicago when he has an unusually intelligent response to an experiment being performed on a group of chimps. He soon becomes their star research subject and is eventually allowed to live outside the laboratory with Lydia Littlemore, one of the primatologists. (I won’t go through all of what transpires between Bruno and Lydia but will say that this book may offend some readers.)
Despite intelligence that is impressive not just for a chimpanzee but for a human as well, Bruno has difficulty overcoming his more primal urges. The novel is made up of the memoirs Bruno dictates to a graduate student at a primate research center in Georgia. He reveals in the first few pages that he is not at the research center by choice but is being held there for a murder he committed. The novel is close to 600 pages and the murder isn’t explained in detail until near the end. The intervening pages have many bizarre elements but what’s most impressive about The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is what a tour de force of storytelling it is. I often avoid novels that go over 400 pages in large part because so many of them seem poorly edited rather than really requiring such a thick book in order to tell the story. Here, each scene seems essential. During the book’s later chapters, Hale doesn’t run out of gas but instead introduces two of the books best characters.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a remarkable debut novel. Here’s hoping that for his next book Benjamin Hale chooses a more accessible subject so more readers can appreciate what a fine writer he is.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford

Part of my work here involves reading books for discussion that I might not select otherwise. That being said, I am sometimes justified in my thinking a genre/author/style will not appeal to me and sometimes I am surprised. This is definitely the latter. I loved Jane Bites Back and read the two sequels all within ten days! This is definitely not serious reading, but who ever said it all has to have great literary merit to be worth reading? Anyway, I digress…

Jane Austen is a vampire running a bookstore in upstate New York. She was ‘turned’ (that’s vampire jargon for being made into one of the undead!) two centuries earlier and is just trying to live a quiet life within the confines of her state. She has to move periodically because she does not age, she tries not to build relationships because she can’t bear to hurt and be hurt when it’s time to move on, and ‘feeds’ only when required. She has been trying to get her latest novel, Constance, published but has been turned down by over 100 publishers. Suddenly, everything changes when her novel is accepted and becomes a bestseller, her feelings for a mortal get more complicated, and Lord Byron, her original seducer/vampire-maker, appears on the scene.
If you want to stick your toe in the water of ‘mashup’ fiction, consider Jane Bites Back. This is light, fun, and a true guilty pleasure.


Sequels: Jane Goes Batty; Jane Vows Vengeance

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Box by Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson The BoxThe Box is a collection of very dark short stories written by the great Richard Matheson. The title story is actually Button, Button and is definitely the creepiest story of all. This story was actually turned into a movie in 2010 with the above title. It is the story of a couple that receive a rather plain box in the mail; just 4 sides and a top. But on the top is a button. After receiving it, they are visited by a man that explains the reason for the box. For $50,000, all they need to do is push the button. And what happens when they push the button? Well, someone will die.
This is just one of the several disturbing tales in this collection. There is one about a generation of families that have been living near a nuclear test site. There is one about a man obsessed with what he wears. Another about a couple that go into a diner in the middle of the desert.
Richard Matheson used to write for The Twilight Zone, so you can just imagine how these stories go. This is an audio book, and the narrator has just the kind of voice that adds to the fear factor.

Enjoy (if you dare)!


Read-alike authors: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little

Monday, June 4, 2012

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

Cover imageGossip was not at all what I expected. I had assumed this would be all about celebrities, scandals, and well, gossip! This novel turned out to be so much more and was really well done. This is the story of Loviah, and we first meet her at an elite boarding school where she makes friends that will be with her for her entire life. Yes, there are scandals, celebrities, and gossip, but not in the way that most novels travel. This is more about the humans behind the magazine headlines, and how the paparazzi can really destroy someone. Intelligent chick-lit at its best.


Read alike author: Kathryn Harvey

Friday, June 1, 2012

Skinnydipping by Bethenny Frankel

Cover imageOnce again, don't judge! Still in my celebrity gossipy mood, I was glad to get my hands on this. I will admit this time to being a HUGE fan of the Real Housewives... series (all of them, in fact) and since Bethenny Frankel was an original New York housewife, well, of course I was excited. Sadly, I ended up being disappointed. First of all, instead of just trying to be be what it really is (chick lit), Skinnydipping takes itself just a little too seriously. Second, too much celebrity name dropping (or guessing who she really means). Finally, too fast paced! I have a feeling this is autobiographical, so why didn't she just write her memoir and leave it at that? Either way it would have sold.


Kardashian Konfidential by Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian

Cover imageDon't judge! I was in the mood for something light, fun, and gossipy and let's face it,  Kardashian Konfidential certainly was a good candidate. Truthfully, I am not a fan of their show(although I have watched it) but I will admit to following their lives in the media. This book is not so much about their lives now as their early years. They talk about their famous father, their famous stepfather, and all of their parent's famous friends. And yes, they do mention the OJ Simpson trial, but since they were all very young at the time there isn't much to this. One fun aspect is all of their little fashion, shopping, and relationship(?) advice. Not much new here, but if you're in a certain kind of mood this is a pleasant little read.