Tag Archives: review


3 May

2000irises: A review of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Mr. Irises and I have a longstanding tradition which I never thought was unusual until I mentioned it to friends. We read books aloud to each other. I don’t know when we started doing this, probably over 15 years ago, and I can’t say how many books we’ve shared. Many. We read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud. All seven Harry Potter books. The Chronicles of Narnia. So many more: The Blind Assassin, Tender is the Night, Love In The Time of Cholera, The Secret History, The Keep, etc. I can’t possibly remember them all. Over the past few years, though, we’ve become very spotty about reading together – small children can be so inconvenient. (Stop scowling. That was a joke.) In any case, we kept promising to get back to reading aloud. A little over a month ago we decided to give it another go and chose Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. What a fantastic book to come back to.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtrees: a strange, insulated family living on an isolated island in the Ten Thousand Islands region of the Everglades. The Bigtrees have owned and operated the Swamplandia! alligator-wrestling theme park for two generations, but when its star attraction, Hilola Bigtree, dies of ovarian cancer, the park falls on hard times. That’s just the beginning. What follows is the tale of a fractured family, founded on a manufactured history, struggling to survive as their self-delusions unravel.

The book is primarily told through the recollections of Ava Bigtree, who is 13 at the time of the story. She’s been so thoroughly insulated from the mainland that the only “ordinary” people she has ever met are the service people and tourists who come to Swamplandia!. She aspires to the magnificent strength and bravery of her mother, Hilola, and after her mother dies, Ava takes it upon herself to rescue her family from ruin. However, a scrappy 13-year-old who understands alligators far better than she understands people is an extraordinarily vulnerable person. She shows amazing courage, but her blind faith is a terrible liability.

We also spend a good deal of time with Ava’s older brother, Kiwi – a 17-year-old who only wants to escape the confines of the island and go to school like a normal teenager. He reads voraciously and counts himself a genius, but when he defects to the mainland, he learns the hard way just how little he knows. Like Ava, Kiwi has no idea how to interact with other people. As he discovers just how much of his family’s life is a fiction, he becomes more even devoted to them while scrabbling for his own independence.

Other characters in Swamplandia! include the third Bigtree sibling: Osceola, a 16-year-old with a predilection for interludes with ghosts; Sawtooth Bigtree, the aged patriarch; Samuel (Chief) Bigtree, Sawtooth’s fervently delusional son who has raised his children to be fiercely loyal to their family and proud of their home; and The Bird Man, a spectral figure who ostensibly controls the avian life of the swamp. And Russell describes that swamp with such throbbing detail that it too becomes a quasi-sentient being, pulsing with life, both sustaining and treacherous.

Russell writes so beautifully that at twenty-nine, she’s already been singled out by The National Book Foundation and the New Yorker for her prodigious talent. Have a look at Swamplandia!’s opening sentences:

“Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree’s idea, and it was a good one – to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights’ tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!’s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree.”

Swamplandia! is thoroughly original, magical, and deeply suspenseful. Unfortunately, it highlighted one of the perils of reading aloud – it’s impossible to read a whole book quickly, especially when the writing is this rich. One can’t stay up all night, plunging desperately through chapter after chapter. After weeks of mounting tension, though, Mr. Irises and I finally caved in to the pressure and spent three hours straight reading the harrowing last 80 pages, desperate to reach the resolution. It didn’t disappoint. It’s already won the Bard Fiction Prize, and I think we can expect to see this book on more of 2011’s short lists of best fiction. Read it and tell me what you think.


Adapt or Die

18 Apr

2000irises: Adapt or Die — A Review of the film Hanna

I’m not normally a fan of the action film. Testosterone-drenched, glamorized violence does nothing for me. Generally, action movies are ridiculous at best, boring at worst. Yes, boring. I don’t care enough about pumping soundtracks and squealing tires to sit through a plotless parade of scantily clad women and sweaty men. Yawn. Action movies rarely show any inspiration or creativity, and the inevitable, endless regurgitation of sequels only waters down the already-bland content. Fast Five, for example.

Then, occasionally, an action movie comes along which surprises me. This year, it’s Hanna. If you haven’t seen Hanna yet, you really, really should. Hanna’s director, Joe Wright, is most widely known for his literary adaptations of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. (He recently announced he’s tackling Anna Karenina next.) Hanna is nothing like his previous work, but it retains crucial elements of his auteur style, in particular, his focus on complex female characters and their social environments. In a recent interview with Morgan Denno, Wright said, “I think most action movies have a very dubious socio-political point of view. It’s all about the glorification of violence and women becoming objects. I wanted to make an action movie that had a moral and a socio-political conscious.” [sic]

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is unlike any film heroine in recent memory. She’s s teen girl who’s been raised in the arctic wilderness, trained by her father to be an assassin. Sure, she kicks ass, but that’s a tiny part of why she’s so compelling. She’s lived away from civilization for most of her life, and despite her fluency in several languages, she doesn’t understand people or society. When it comes to relationships, motivations, falsehoods, love, she’s totally at a loss. This vulnerability balances out her fearsome fighting skills. Hanna has the innocence and self-preservation instincts of an wild animal – a comparison Wright sets up in the first scene. Hanna must kill her nemesis before she is killed, but her real challenge is to learn how to exist and survive among other people.

It’s notable that Hanna is not the only woman in this film. Unlike almost any other action film, the leads in Hanna are primarily women, none of whom are hypersexualized. (For comparison, check out what Joe Wright has to say about Sucker Punch.) Cate Blanchett plays Marissa, the CIA agent out to destroy Hanna and her father.

Jessica Barden plays Sophie, the “typical” teen daughter of the vacationing family that Hanna temporarily latches onto. And Olivia Williams plays Rachel, Sophie’s affectionate mother who tries to show Hanna kindness and protection. In contrast, only Eric Bana as Hanna’s father, and a truly sinister Tom Hollander have significant male roles. (Oh Mr. Collins, No!)

Hanna features gorgeous fairy-tale locations, fantastic cinematography, solid, terse dialogue, and amazing acting. What especially intrigued me, however, was the thematic question about mother-daughter relationships. Mothers populate this film: Photographs of Hanna’s dead mother haunt her throughout the movie. Hanna’s grandmother also appears briefly, and challenges Marissa to consider her position as a mother. (Watch Blanchett’s mouth and throat twitch when she admits she has no children.) Rachel is a surrogate protective figure, and Marissa, of course, is the anti-mother. Significantly, Wright doesn’t moralize about or idealize these mothers (or non-mothers) one bit. Instead, he presents complex characters in impossible situations and lets us consider how these mother-daughter relationships are relevant.

One doesn’t ordinarily expect such subtlety or philosophic consideration from an action movie. In his Vanity Fair interview with John Lopez, Wright explained, “Paul Greengrass showed us with the Bourne films that it’s possible to make an action film with a political, social conscience. I liked that idea of making an action film that was the opposite of misogynistic, gun-loving bullshit. Something that could entertain, first and foremost, but also have a social conscience.” Well done, Mr. Wright. Hanna is beautiful, well-written and masterfully executed.

Oh yeah, it’s also fast-paced, loaded with cool weaponry and impressive fighting, and set to a kicking soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers. No car chases though. You’ll have to (gulp) see Fast Five for that.

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