Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

If last year was any indicator — which it probably was — this may be the last fiction book I read with any kind of efficacy for about 9 months.  Sniff.  There aren’t many complaints I have about grad school, but at the top of a very short list is this: my reading is taken up by articles and nonfiction, which taxes the brain and the soul.  I need my fiction, people!  I don’t know when most of you read books during the day, but before bed has always been a favorite for me, with quiet afternoon a close second.  Bedtime after a long day though is disastrous for remembering plot points and characters, no matter how poignant or abrasive or thrilling the story.  The Paris Wife is next on my list, so let’s hope I don’t let poor Mrs. Hemingway languish for months and months as I read one page per day.

Swamplandia! had all the weirdness I want from a book — a story about a family of alligator wrestlers who fall on hard times when a rival theme park moves in and takes away their customers.  It really turned out to be three sections — the first section about the family members finding outlets for their grief after the mother’s death (not a spoiler), the second an unintentional group of short stories going back and forth between Ava and Kiwi’s respective journeys, and the third a “dark night of the soul” type ending that culminates suddenly in the most Pollyanna way I could imagine.

I liked the quirkiness of the first section.  The family history and the set up of the Swamplandia! park and especially the descriptions of the mother were heartening with just the right amount of darkness to them.  Russell created a family that was wacky, quintessentially American, and easy to love.  Then in the second section everything falls apart, and although the humor is still pushing around in the peripherals,  it just seems like nothing is actually going to go right for anyone and the whole book becomes hopeless and dismal.  The reader watches characters make choices that seem not only weird, but are definitely bad. It’s not uncomfortable exactly — dismal really is the right word.

And then every bad thing you imagined might happen to the characters after their bad decisions (which, by the way, work because they are adolescents.  I didn’t feel any kind of sympathy for Chief Bigtree, the father, because there’s just no world that exists in my head where a parent should make the decision he does) DOES happen to them.  But suddenly!  The great Deus ex machina to the rescue!  And abruptly everything’s back to the tone of the first section again — the family is going to make it through this together, yo ho ho, isn’t the world funny?

Not really.

I haven’t read anything else by Russell, and I did really enjoy her writing early in the story.  I just appreciate consistency in the books I read.  If I should be ready for a long deep look into the evils of the human psyche, I can do that and appreciate that.  If I should be ready for a lovely story about the strengths of families and the storms they can weather together, I can do that and appreciate that.  But I can’t switch back and forth between the two.

I hear good things about Russell’s first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, as if that title wasn’t enough to make me want to read it.  And although this is largely a complainy post, I really did enjoy the book — just not as one unit.  So I will check out this other novel, if only to see how many girls are raised by wolves and whether St. Lucy makes it through alive.

In about 20 minutes, I’m off to my first class of fall quarter.  Good bye, summer!  Good bye, fiction books!  It’s me, not you!  I’ll try to keep in touch, novels!


Persuasion by Jane Austen

Ahh, Persuasion.  This is my favorite Jane Austen novel, and for good reason.  It is so mature, and so…perfect.  I read this one in high school, and, when I recently decided to read it again, I couldn’t quite remember what is was about…but I remembered staying up nights to finish it, something I usually reserved for the Bronte books in high school.  The reread did not disappoint.  In fact, I think I enjoyed it more now than I did then.   I fell in love with Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth a little more this time…their slow joining is so wonderful.  I read the last pages about three extra times, from Frederick’s romantic and impassioned letter to their exclamations of love for each other.

But really what I love best about this book is how mature their love is.  They are both older — they know what they have missed these past 8 years since their estrangement.  When they finally are able to reveal their feelings for each other, they immediately seem like husband and wife — no overly gushing scenes, no teasing or playing.  There is something so real about it…I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is wonderful.

And the MOVIE!  After I finished, we watched the 1995 version.  Perfect!  Apparently there’s another more recent version that Austen-internet-groupies seem to love.  As long as it doesn’t have Keira Knightley in it, I’ll check that one out too.

The minor characters are delightfully wicked, and I cheered for Anne and Frederick at the end, as they put aside the fruitless “persuasions” of the world around them and followed their hearts.  Sounds corny as I describe it in a lacking summary here, but not in the hands of Austen.

Also, now I’m excited to make the Sweater for Anne and the Sweater for Frederick from Interweave Knits!  They’ve started putting out a fabulous new knitting pattern magazine called Jane Austen Knits — all of the patterns are based on characters from her novels or inspired by the events.  The two sweaters are pictured here — and although these models look bored and a bit sullen, I’m sure Drew and I will be smiling when we wear them.  No word on when I’ll get to that yet, but as soon as I can persuade myself to purchase some yarn, they’ll be made.  Probably…in 8 years?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

After reading The Run Diary earlier this fall, I knew I needed to revisit this one.  I’ve lived in Vegas for almost 7 years now…wait, fact check.  For real?  It’s been 7 years already?  Yep — 7 years.  And now that I’ve lived here, I feel like I know the kinds of things about this city that only “locals” can know.  So it was time to recheck out Thompson’s book — you know, the one from that movie with Johnny Depp.  He’s the old guy who plays Jack Sparrow.


It’s spot on.  I mean, all the drug culture stuff and the crazed stupors are still hysterical and gritty, but what I wanted to see this time is how well does Thompson paint this town?  Does he nail it?  Answer?  Yes.  What’s difficult is that the Vegas Thompson describes is still the Vegas of today — even though Vegas would rather die than admit it.  But it’s true.  The kind of depraved negligence he shows is the way this city runs.  The confusion between whether it’s a city or just a tourist dump is the lifeblood of conversation here.  The city just built a beautiful Arts Center — really, very gorgeous — for shows and for the symphony to play in.  But all the town can talk about is whether it will attract any tourists.  It’s like the entire point of an Arts Center is missed — who cares about the tourists?  That building is for YOU, locals.  Or — Drew’s favorite example — NPR ran a spot for weeks about the possible smoking ban that went something like this: “New York, LA, Paris…what do all these cities have that Las Vegas doesn’t?  A smoking ban.”  Well, I guess that’s true.  Of course they also have a ton of OTHER, more IMPORTANT things that draw the line between actual “city” and…here.

Fair warning.  I know I’m hating.  But this town can’t keep ignoring this stuff.  How much cultural or educational growth can a place have when the best a school can hope for in a partnership is with a casino that has a restaurant called “The Pink Taco?”

But the moments of clarity in between drugged fantasies are worth anyone’s time.  And it is still true that Circus Circus is exactly what the entire hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.  Again, spot on.

I hope to read this book in another 10 years or so and say, “Wow, Las Vegas is a lot different than it used to be!”  But if it’s already been 40 years….well, I’m not going to slow down through bat country.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

This year I am teaching an Honors English class for the first time, and it is really fun.  It’s not always that different from my Regular classes, honestly, for myriad reasons, but when it is/can be different, I really enjoy it.

The Stranger by Albert Camus is a book I would never have considered doing with my regular classes.  I really wasn’t sure it would be a good choice with my Honors kids, either.  I read The Plauge by Camus in my senior English class in high school, and it was one of my favorites reads that year.  So much going on, so unlike any other book I had ever read — it was fascinating. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure my students were really up to what this author had to offer.  But everyone deserves a chance, right?


So we read it anyway.  It’s a short read — I barrelled through it in three nights — and my students trudged through it in 2 weeks.  I can’t really speak to how much they got out of it — it was obvious from some of their essays that some understood better than others, but isn’t that always the case? — but I can speak to how interesting I found it.  I haven’t read a book like this in a long time…a book that makes me wonder exactly what the author intended for his reader as they read.  The imagery was stark and chosen with care, the main character was confusing — at one moment, I would think I had him figured out, and in the next phrase, he would confound me with his actions.  I love a book that can get my attention so thoroughly in the middle of a busy school year, one that can make me feel as though I’m in an English class of one.

Not a read for everyone, because the “uplifting” part of this book is quite dark, but the truths in it were undeniable.  All in all, it made me want to revisit The Plague, because I bet there were just a few things my own little high school brain wasn’t quite ready for yet.  Time for another shot in the dark.

When I began teaching the

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I read the first in this series, The Magicians, over Christmas break 2010.  It was a relatively cool book, especially considering all of the weird things I had heard about it before I read it.  All sorts of readers on Good Reads kept saying meaningless comparisons like, “It’s Harry Potter for adults” or “Harry Potter for the Hipster crowd!”  Being only Hipster-sensitive and not myself a hipster, I didn’t know exactly what to make of that.  Turns out what that meant was that The Magicians was a book about high school graduates who are invited to a private school to learn magic.  Honestly, that seems to be where the comparisons end.

The Magician King, the sequel, was also better than I expected.  At the end of the first book, I was unsure of where the story could go, or if it could even continue.  The answer?  It’s got places to go, new magical mysteries to uncover, and yes, it’s able to continue.  New characters were introduced that I ended up caring about.  New magical places were explored that I had not heard about in the other book.  Old ideas were dredged up again for another going-over, but new ideas were also brought to light.  The ending of this book was in some ways more satisfying than the first book — I feel more compelled to continue reading — but it also feels odd.  I’m not sure exactly how to feel about my main character at the end.  Is he really the martyr I think the author wants me to see?  Or is Quentin (the main character) just at another weird crossroads but somehow has found his “bliss,” something he’s never been remotely close to before?

It probably feels like I’m not actually saying much about this book. I’m trying to explain my thoughts about it without totally blowing the plot for you, in case you’re interested in reading it.  But now, looking at what I’ve written so far, it’s difficult to get what I’m talking about.  I’ll say this: if you read the first book, it’s worth reading the second.  If you haven’t read the first book, but you like fantasy novels with realistic touches, check it out.

I do enjoy the realistic world Grossman has created.  It’s not like Harry Potter — nothing is safe, or out of bounds, or unimaginable.  Evil is truly scary, not referred to like the Boogieman.  And I think one aspect of his realism is how he treats magic in these books — as just another talent that some people have.  I see others on Good Reads complaining about how nonchalant Quentin (who is our main Magician, and our Magician King in this second book) is about magic.  But wouldn’t you be, after awhile?  We like to think that magic is special, and exciting, etc. etc.  But if it was actually something you could do, the simple stuff would lose its charm eventually.  (punny!)  So it seems only realistic to me that Quentin would sometimes be a little bored, even though we, the unmagic types, find everything he does exceptional.  I like that Grossman doesn’t seem worried about creating a world where magic exists and we find it “magical” — in his world, magic just exists, like how religion exists.  Some people are really into it — other folks, it’s just something they do.

That’s not to say he doesn’t create some fantastical things.  I love the world of Fillory, and I find the Neitherworlds really interesting as an idea.  And, without giving too much away, the origin of magic as discussed in this book is really cool — good food for thought.  So haters can hate.  These books are enjoyable, and if you can’t get past Quentin’s ennui at times to enjoy the interesting paradoxical worlds Grossman has created, then just leave it.  Go back to your Hipster hating parties and leave poor Quentin alone.  Lord knows he’s got enough problems by the end of this book.

Also, on an ending note — I swear, I’m almost done with this weird and random review — I was not into Harry Potter or the Narnia books as a youngster.  I’ve read both, but as an adult, not at a more impressionable age.  But I would think that the Narnia fans would enjoy these books more than the Harry Potter crowd would.  Grossman is really creating an homage to Narnia in Fillory, but often ridicules the Harry Potter world with his own comparisons in this book.  Either way, he’s created something that deserves to be called its own — not only referred to by comparisons that don’t hold together well anyway.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

This book is the most “noir-y” book I’ve ever read.  The little prologue is a tight description of a little backyard bar in Puerto Rico, a bar that will be the safe haven of the characters in the book.  But during the whole description, I could hear the muted trumpet music and see the descending crane shot into the smoky, black-and-white bar with newspapermen drinking rum like water as they sit blankly at their tables.  And in the epilogue, we’re back in the bar, the crane now zooming out on two broken men, the muted trumpet growing louder as we wonder exactly what will happen to our anti-hero next.

My favorite part of this book was the ending — it left just the right amount of unanswered questions.  I felt uncertain of any happiness in the end, just knew that the main character would continue on his way.

But as a whole, I can see how die-hard fans of Gonzo journalism wouldn’t like this novel.  It was previously unpublished, and you can see why.  It definitely lacks the bombastic, robust style of Thompson’s other works.  For me, though, a definitively “slight” fan, it was a nice fit.  There’s no hiding the terrible events that happen, no flowery language to decode, no violence portrayed romantically.  It’s journalistic in a novel way — observant, but opinionated.  As the reader, I don’t particularly like any of the characters, but I don’t particularly hate them either.  They just exist, and that camera from the prologue and epilogue decides who’s important at the moment. All of the elements I enjoy from Thompson’s other works are here — the stark honesty, the delicious extremes, the unapologetic scenes of mayhem — but most of all, the continual sifting for the perfect explanation of a place.  Why Puerto Rico?  Why now?  What’s happening in this place at this time that makes it a story?  That delicate edge of his description, the introspective bent that brings us moments like this:

…you can go up a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Of course, that’s from Fear and Loathing, but Rum Diary had its moments like this too.  Moments where I feel like Thompson’s somehow found the exact words to “get at” a place:

Those were the good mornings, when the sun was hot and the air was quick and promising, when the Real Business seemed right on the verge of happening and I felt that if I went just a little faster I might overtake that bright and fleeting thing that was always just ahead.

Then came noon, and morning withered like a lost dream.  The sweat was torture and the rest of the day was littered with the dead remains of all those things that might have happened, but couldn’t stand the heat.

Pales when compared to later stuff, but still pretty accurate.

They’re making a movie of this, coming out in October, and I’m curious to see how it is.  Besides the perfect “noir-ness” of the prologue and epilogue, the rest of the book doesn’t have any kind of intense plot to follow…just following Paul Kemp through his time there.  Johnny Depp is playing Paul Kemp, and I’m sure he’ll be great, but it’s a little like old men playing Hamlet…oh well.  I’m sure it’ll be good with Strong Drink before The Fear sets in.  Make mine with rum.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

From the ballet -- Looks like the capture the desperation well. Don't tip onto the tracks!

Centurylink has caused this post to be barely existent. We waited for one entire month for them to hook up our Internet connection, and finally ended up ditching them and switching to Cox…who hooked up the Internet within two days. See, Centurylink, it was not the impossible task you thought it to be.
In the meantime, I finished Anna Karenina. Quite a feat. My first impression was that people must have had many fewer distractions in Tolstoy’s time, because there was a lot going on. Understatement!
But this was a novel that I had gotten halfway through in high school. It was the summer between graduation and college, and I was working at the Excelo Bakery, getting to work to open for them at 6:00 am. It helped to have a good book between 9:00 and noon, when I got off work. Not many people were buying donuts after 9:00. But, that summer, with trepidations of the oncoming move away from home and the frequent get togethers with high school friends, didn’t leave any mental space for poor Anna. At some point mid-book and midsummer, I just dropped it for a book where every character only had one name instead of four.
This time I started from the beginning again, and it took forever…as expected. But! I had NOT expected to become so engrossed in the twin story of Levin and Kitty! I would find myself rushing (or maybe Russian? Ha!) through the depressing, fatalistic sections about doomed Anna and difficult Vronsky to get to the story which Tolstoy must have meant as the positive counterpart to the passionate partners. Levin and Kitty survived together, and loved each other without the selfish bounds that Anna and Vronsky created around themselves.
And even though I knew what would happen to her (spoiler alert!), the train scene was gritty and intense, not what I expected from a book of this time period. It was more like the end of a Tarantino film, and I mean that in a good way. I read it three times before I felt that I understood what was going on philosophically and spiritually.  Also, I was inspired to finally read it all the way through because of the movie, The Last Station, about Tolstoy’s last days.  Really great film.  And now I want to see THAT again too!  Maybe it’s just a continuous roundabout of Tolstoy excitement — novel, movie, novel, movie — until you become so dizzy you fall on the tracks.  (Poor taste?)
All in all, a good read that I am glad to have crossed off my list, but feel no need to reread in the next thirty years or so. After that…maybe. AND! My new favorite song is a song by Phoebe Kreutz, called, “I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About Anna Karenina.”. I know how you feel, Phoebe. If only we could have warned her.

Seriously...a bad feeling.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Marvel made a comic book out of it! Very cool...

(Okay, Beth!  Here it is!)

I enjoyed it.  That’s first.

Second comes all of the baggage that I brought to this book. I kind of didn’t want to like it.  I feel sheepish saying that, but when I finally decided to read this beloved book from the canon, that everyone has always told me I SHOULD read, I pushed back.  Maybe it was because I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre at very impressionable moments.  After being so steeped in the Brontes, Austen’s books seemed so “surface”…  It was all dances and husbands and then finally in the end, a nice love scene which you always knew was coming.  Of course Emma was going to be happy in the end.  Of course Marianne and Elinor were going to be okay.  In the Bronte books you never knew!  At the time, I was only appreciating Austen’s writing for the plot — and there wasn’t much to appreciate.

But that was awhile ago.  So, with it being free on my Kindle, I decided to give it another go.  And, I thought my mother-in-law would approve!  Since it came so highly recommended from someone whose book sense I trust, I had to read it all the way through.

At first, it was a bit of a chore.  I kept telling myself to give it a chance.  Just enjoy it.  Forget that Keira Knightly played Elizabeth in the recent movie and you think she looks like a skeleton monster.  The main character has the same name as you — she can’t be all bad.  Roll with it.

I found myself in turmoil at the beginning over the flightiness and frivolity of the Bennets.  They all — mother, daughters, father — were so deep in self-interest.  I wondered how I would actually read this all the way through.  Then, Mr. Bennet had a problem with Mr. Collins, and Jane shared this thought with me:

In [Mr. Bennet’s] library he had been always sure of leisure and tranquility; and though prepared, as he told Elizabeth, to meet with folly and conceit in every other room of the house, he was used to be free from them there.

Isn’t that beautiful?  And, not only beautiful, but true?  It’s like a little moment of Virginia Woolf in the mind of this patriarch.  It just so happened, also, that I read this at the same moment that I had begun to share my classroom with two more teachers.  I didn’t have my own space away from folly and conceit any more either, and I thought, Don’t worry, Mr. Bennet — we’ll get through this together.

And, with that simple little moment, Jane Austen won.  I opened up to the rest of the story, and didn’t worry too much about the silliness and sometimes stupidity of the women, or the bull-headedness of the men, or the taxing rules of their society.  I found myself marking page after page of my favorite moments, and wanting to comment on her astuteness.  Check it out:

When Mr. Collins simply won’t accept Lizzy’s “no” to his proposal:

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; [because how on earth can you argue with someone who won’t listen to you?  Apropos for our current political culture!] determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals, as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behavior at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.  [A problem for women everywhere — how can you be taken seriously by someone who sees you only as an object of feminine wiles?]

A conversation between Jane and Elizabeth:

“It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us.  Women fancy admiration means more than it does.”

“And men take care that they should.”

Nice.  Well played, ladies.  I laughed out loud at this next bit from Lady Catherine.  How many times have we all met people like her — when they discover that you are talented at something, they want to make sure you know that they could be talented if they tried, too.  Probably more than you, anyways.

“Of music!  Then pray speak aloud.  It is of all subjects my delight.  I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of music.  There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste.  If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.  And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply.  I am confident that she would have performed delightfully.”

She won. I submit to her intriguing wit, biting observations and true-to-life human interactions.

I also appreciate that Jane Austen wants to show that love will only work with relationships that evolve organically.  All of the relationships that were imposed or created by others outside of it were flawed.  But Darcy and Elizabeth in the end seemed good to go.  I’m okay sharing a name with Elizabeth Bennet in the end — she mellowed out, and so did I.

Check out Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thoughts on Pride and Prejudice also — he was reading it at the same time I was.  Unknown book club!

So, in the end, I also swallowed my pride and gave this book another try.  And, lo and behold, my prejudices against it were unfounded and immature.  Hat tip, Jane Austen.  You win this round.  Perhaps we’ll play again some time soon…I bet you’ll win that round too.

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