Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Great Reads for May 2011

by Julia Kuttner

Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

SwamplandiaSwamplandia! Is the name of a run-down nature park owned and operated by the Bigtree family on an island in the Everglades in Florida.  They Swim with the Alligators!  Wrestle them into Submission!  Take the tourists on Island Wildlife walks and Tours of the Bigtree Historic Family Museum !  And sell their captive visitors toxic refreshments and souvenirs from the only cafĂ©, reluctantly staffed by the three Bigtree children who are home-schooled  by their  mother, Hilola, Alligator wrestler and swimmer extraordinaire, star of the show and of their hearts.  Dad is Samuel ‘Chief’ Bigtree;  he is the compere, works the lights, does all the repairs, and looks after his aged father, Grandpa Sawtooth, who started up the business – which is running on the smell of an oily rag and mortgaged to the hilt.  There is not a drop of Native American blood in any of them, but it’s good for business and the tourists to think so, and as a business and a family the Bigtrees putter along until Hilola dies of ovarian cancer at the age of 36.
Ms. Russell writes with stark and painful clarity of the confusion and disintegration of the family:  the Chief leaves the children in charge of the animals – the tourists have stopped coming since the star attraction died – and goes to the mainland, ostensibly to find ‘investors’, taking Grandpa with him;  the old man has lapsed into senility and has bitten a  tourist;  he is now a reluctant resident of the ‘Out-to-Sea’ retirement facility.  Kiwi, the oldest at 17 (named for the fruit;  there’s no mention of Our Bird) is furious with his father for deserting the ship – then does precisely the same, getting himself a job on the mainland at the opposition, The World of Darkness, a huge and tawdry new funpark, where all the visitors are not called tourists, but Lost Souls.  His aim is to earn enough money to get the family out of debt and his attempts to do so are achingly funny.  Then there’s Osceola, 16 years old and convinced that she’s visited by spirits, so much so that she elopes with one, to the enormous distress of her younger sister Ava, 13 years old and an aspiring apprentice ‘gator wrestler. Ava embarks on a wild journey through the swamp on a recovery mission of her  sister with The Bird Man, a professional bird removalist as guide and everything turns predictably, horribly pear-shaped:  it is a tribute to Ms. Russell’s dazzling literary skill that she can draw the reader in to the great predatory and natural world of the Everglades to such a degree that everything is chillingly real, everything is believable -  but most of all, her evocation of family bonds, hugely strained but not broken by great tragedy, lies at the heart of this wonderful story.  This was a pleasure to read.  *****

Their Faces Were Shining, by Tim Wilson.

Their faces were shiningThe Rapture, coming soon to a place near you!  And this is what happens when it does.  Tim Wilson has quite an important day job, that of U.S.  Correspondent for TVNZ, but I’m happy to say that the ‘There’s a Great Novel Bursting to be Born from every Journalist’ clichĂ© is very true in this case:  Mr. Wilson has made a most successful first foray into the world of the Good Book – in subject and construction.
Hope Patterson and her husband Wade have lost a son to drowning at the age of three;  they have another daughter, Rachel, but Hope turns to religion in an attempt to assuage her terrible grief.  Wade does not.  He loses his job and tries to start a new business with a spectacular lack of success.  Meantime, Hope tries all religious variations on for size – Holy Rollers, Happy Clappies et al – before deciding that the Presbyterians are her flavor of choice;  thereafter she immerses herself completely in her new identity as a worthy subject of the Lord, so Good and Without Sin that she will forget the u
nforgettable:  the outrage of her son’s death:   in fact, all that piety must ensure that she will surely get to Heaven eventually to be with her darling boy again -  not that she would consciously admit it.  Her Holier-than-Thouness creates a schism in her family:  Us against Her, much to her sorrow and confusion.  She cannot understand why her husband and daughter don’t want or need the comfort of God’s Grace and more baffling still is the sneaking thought that God has left the building whenever she asks for assistance with the Patterson family’s myriad problems.  And supreme insult is added to agonizing injury:  The Rapture, long prophesied and written of in the Holy Book, actually occurs:  the Righteous are taken up Unto Heaven, accompanied by all children under the age of 17 (even Hope’s son is taken up from his grave) – and Hope, that paragon of virtue, that shining example of The Good Woman, is left behind .  Those others of her acquaintance left to wallow in the Sinful World cannot believe it and neither can Hope:  she is forced to stay behind to confront some very big questions:  where do her loyalties lie – with God or her family?  Do you love God utterly, or is God truly Love?   Tim Wilson chronicles Hope’s rocky road to realization with real skill and, despite the serious themes, great humour.  This is a smart, funny exploration of love in its many guises but posits most persuasively  that familial love is the most unrewarded, unselfish, painful,  noble love of all.  Well done, Tim Wilson – you can leave your Day Job anytime!  ****

Ape House, by Sara Groen

Ape houseSara Groen has already been justly acclaimed for her novel ‘Water for Elephants’, a wonderful story of an American circus during the time of the 30’s Depression, recently made into a very successful movie.  Now she tries something completely different: a story of  scientific experimentation – good and bad -  with primates, in this case six Bonobos, (cousins of the chimpanzee) held at a laboratory and taught by sign language to communicate with scientists.  Reporter John Thigpen is assigned to do a story on the apes and their ‘trainer’ Isabel Duncan, a scientist who regards them as family rather than mere animals – certainly they are more her family than anyone else -  and she has made great strides in educating them and increasing her own knowledge of how the apes and their hierarchy function.  Thigpen wishes to write a serious article lauding her singular achievements and does so – until he is usurped and his story stolen by an unscrupulous colleague.  The apes’ laboratory is bombed, ostensibly by animal activists;  Isabel is seriously injured and the apes are sold on to a Porn king who wants to make a reality TV show called, of all things, Ape House!  Yep, a lot happens in a very short time and I have to say that there are more characters in this book than you can shake a stick at, some of them wildly funny and others who are superfluous to the plot;  regardless, Ms Groen manages to keep all her literary balls up in the air and we reach the happy ending (and I’m so glad it was!) with every loose thread neatly tucked away.  Ms Groen has done some very solid research into apes and their ability to communicate by picture and sign, and the story she has produced is both a damning condemnation of animal cruelty and abuse and  a loving tribute to a species’ dignity, intelligence and innate integrity.  This was a pleasure to read.  ****

Hokitika Town, by Charlotte Randall

Hokitika townThe year is 1865;  the great Gold Rush is well under way and Hokitika is booming;  there are 100 pubs throughout the town to slake the miners’ thirst – and relieve them of their hard-won gold, and everyone is trying to get rich quick by fair means or foul before the gold runs out and all the diggers move on to the next Big Strike.  Into this hotch-potch of goodies and baddies comes  Halfie – Half-pint, Harvey, Bedwetter, Monkey:  these are only some of the names he answers to, this little maori boy who has run away from his tribe after the death of his beloved tuakana Moana.  Being a resourceful and intelligent little boy he has decided to be a ‘coin boy’, and where better a place to earn coin than Hokitika town – he is sure that he will eventually accumulate enough coin to earn a place to sleep by the stove of the reclusive miner and drunk, Ludovic, with the hope that Ludovic will teach him English.  He knows that ‘That Inglish is a langwich what don’t behave’ and he would appreciate some tuition so that he can get fair treatment from Whitey.  Besides, he’s sick of sleeping up a ponga tree – that’s tolerable in the summer, but Hokitika gets a lot of rain and it’s coming onto winter, so he has to plan ahead.
Thereafter follows a rollicking account of Halfie’s adventures as a coin boy,  in his own fractured and inimitable style:  comedy and tragedy vie equally  for places in this wonderful story of great riches and hard times portrayed by a writer of superlative skill.  Halfie is ebullient, shrewd, hilarious, and quite simply unforgettable as he  bravely attempts in his little boy’s way to deal with problems that most adults would  flee rather than solve:  sometimes ‘his heart sag like a old bed’ when his mind turns back to ‘rememorying’, but he has a lion’s heart,  a fox’s cunning and a nobility of spirit that many adults would never achieve in a lifetime.  His friends – and enemies – are wonderfully drawn, too;  an astonishing cavalcade of the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly, and all utterly convincing.  Ms. Randall has brought our Goldrush era to thrilling life:  as Halfie would say:  KA PAI!  And I would say A-MA-ZING.  *****       

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