Reading a Boatload of Karen Russell

I have been a terrible blogger, and for that, I apologize. It isn’t as though I haven’t been reading. I’ve just been too full of thoughts and without enough discipline to sit down and write about them.

I’ve been binging on Karen Russell. I read Swamplandia!, and, in quick summary, it’s about a family that runs a failing alligator-themed tourist trap in the Everglades. It’s a great premise, and there are good things about the book. However–and I hate to say it–I kind of understand why the Pulitzer crew just couldn’t hand it over to her. The book isn’t as good as her shorter stories. It’s missing the magic balance between fantasy and reality that makes her writing so enchanting. And there’s something near the end of Swamplandia! that feels like a cheap move, story-wise. Actually, there are a few things that feel cheap. There wasn’t any building toward a crescendo, and the plot often felt like it was just drifting without much authorial control. I remember being halfway through and just shaking my head, thinking, “Where is this going?” There’s a sense at the end that the book was ending because Russell was like, “Well, got to end this somewhere,” and I feel like there were some shoddy tactics to force a surge at the end that isn’t fair to the reader or to Russell. I feel the most sad about the latter being cheated because Russell is an amazing writer, and she deserved for a better work to be considered her piece of note.

Sleep Donation was so much better. It was much shorter, and the premise was fascinating. A disease has taken hold of the world, and it makes it so that people can’t sleep. It’s at epidemic proportions when we come into the story. People are dying of sleep deprivation. But they have something that eases the suffering of insomniacs, and even in some cases cures them. That thing is sleep donations from healthy sleepers. The protagonist of this book works for a sleep donation collection agency, and her job is to convince healthy people to donate their sleep. I won’t give away the rest of the story. It was not as imaginative and fantasy-based as her short story collections but it’s quite good and easy to put away. I read it on a plane ride from Chicago to San Antonio.

Now I’m cruising through Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Oh my. Short stories are really where Russell shines. These are so amazing and creative, with the same kind of balance between the human and the fantastic that made St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves so great. There’s a particular story in here called “Reeling for the Empire” that is the kind of haunting that sticks with you. In it, little girls are turned into human/silkworm hybrids and forced to slave every day for their food. It ends in a way so utterly satisfying that you want jump up and do a victory fist pump.

More later. Just wanted to check in. It isn’t my goal to become a book reviewer; I prefer doing the analytical posts by far. But if I don’t write down some things on what I’m reading, the obsessive in me will tell me I can’t blog about anything new until I cover everything I read. One of these days I’m going to feed my obsessive to one of Russell’s alligators.

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