Friday, August 31, 2012

Swamped with a Donkey and a Monkey

I'm almost to the end of my vacation book blogging and by now I'm kinda-sorta cheating because I didn't read these books on vacation; I read them just after I got back from vacation.  One I took with me to the lake but never got to it; the other I thought about taking to the lake but didn't throw it into the box. 

Swamplandia, by Karen Russell is a debut novel.  It is an odd story about thirteen year old Ava Bigtree who lives with her family at Swamplandia, a gator-wrestling theme park in Florida.  Her mother has died of cancer and without her the theme park and the family are falling apart. Ava's father neglects the children.  Her brother Kiwi abandons them.  Her sister Osceola disappears, having eloped with a ghost. A creepy guy called the Bird Man shows up and offers to take Ava to find her sister. I won't give any more away but you can see why I say it's an odd story.

As a first novel, it is promising.  It will be interesting to see what her second novel does. The biggest reason I didn't care for this novel was that the whole concept of a gator-wrestling theme park seemed like a gimmick to disguise the fact that she was writing yet another story about a modern dysfunctional family .   The truth is, I was bored by the descriptions of the gators and the wrestling.   Once you take away the alligators the plot didn't seem that original.  I was surprised by nothing that happened to any of the characters. 

Russell does, however, create interesting characters and does a fairly good job with the voices of Ava and Kiwi.  Despite being able to predict pretty much every thing that was going to happen to them, I still cared about Ava and Kiwi (Osceola, not so much).  That's a good achievement in a first novel and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Beatrice and Virgil is a novel by Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi which I really enjoyed.  I enjoyed this one much less.  It started out promising, an author very similar to Martel writes a novel involving animals that has unexpected success (just like Life of Pi).  But the author's next novel is unpublishable.  It isn't really clear why it is unpublishable but it has something to do with the fact that he tries to write about the Holocaust in a creative way that has never been done before.  Whatever that means.

The Holocaust has been written about so much I can't imagine there is a new way to write about it that would work.   And, in fact, the rest of the novel is supposedly Martel writing about the Holocaust in a whole new way involving the story of a strange taxidermist and two of his "stuffed" animals:  a Donkey and a Monkey named Beatrice and Virgil.  The taxidermist is writing a story about them which involves long (looong) conversations about nothing.  I mean nothing in the way that Seinfeld was about nothing.   The conversations were sometimes entertaining or informative and I would get engrossed only to finally realize that they weren't going anywhere.

I'm just going to admit right now that when I got to the end of this novel I felt like I had totally missed something.  I have no idea what Martel was trying to say or show with this novel.  And I do feel that Martel was trying to say something or show something.  I just don't think that people killing animals (even wholesale slaughter of animals) is the same as the murder of millions of Jews.  And I truly didn't understand why the bloody end of the novel was necessary.  I felt that perhaps I should go back and re-read the end of the novel but, the truth is, I didn't care enough to take the time. 

As I said a few posts ago, maybe this year it was just me and I wasn't in the mood for the kind of reading I brought with me.  Or maybe I chose novels that weren't as good as in past years.  But, whatever the reason, I found this summer's reading disappointing compared to other summers. 

Ah well, maybe my winter reading will be better.