‘Like a steamrolled moon’

As long-time blog readers know, I’m a fan of Karen Russell’s writing, so it makes my day to see her first (as far as I recall) non-fiction in The New Yorker: “Helping Hand: Robots, video games, and a radical new approach to treating stroke patients.” The subject is fascinating — tech, humanity, neuroscience — but Russell also brings her descriptive powers to bear.

Five favorite comparisons from the piece:

  1. “Krakauer is forty-nine, with soft, prairie-dog hair….”
  2. “The Hocoma ArmeoPower is a robotic arm that brings to mind the love child of a large dental chair and the Nintendo Power Glove.”
  3. “To climb out of the Pit, Kat and I pulled ourselves up using several cold red rails, reaching with our arms and legs, cinder-blocking our muscles against gravity.”
  4. “Bright creatures slid thickly over one another. A ray looked like a steamrolled moon. Bluefish schooled around with yellow pouts, as if regretting their choice of lipstick.”
  5. “His arms, which were usually ottery when he spoke, lay rigid on the table.”

And two strong snags from her interviews:

  1. “Most cases result from clots that stop blood from flowing to part of the brain, causing tissue to die. ‘Picture someone standing on a hose, and the patch of grass it watered dying almost immediately,’ Steve Zeiler, a neurologist and a colleague of Krakauer’s, told me.”
  2. “S. Thomas Carmichael, a neuroscientist and neurologist at U.C.L.A., compared the period of plasticity [of the brain after a stroke] to the explosion of seedlings after a forest fire: it’s a fecund time, but those shoots are tender, vulnerable, easily damaged.”

Pages it took to hook me on Karen Russell’s new book? One

The first page consists of just two paragraphs. The first paragraph:

In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primo­fiore, or “first flowering fruit,” the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli. In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I’ve been sitting here so long their falls seem contiguous, close as raindrops. My wife has no patience for this sort of meditation. “Jesus Christ, Clyde,” she says. “You need a hobby.”

The second paragraph:

Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grand­father, a nonno. I have an old nonno’s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper that I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I am a vampire.

The collection of short stories — and the first story in the set — are called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I’ve been waiting for months for time to sit down and read. Now that time has arrived, and the book is exactly what I was hoping for. I’m four stories in, and I think it’s some of Russell’s best writing yet. It’s tighter, consistently directed and more in command in light vs. darkness while retaining the wild imagination that sets Russell apart.

Continuing to think about ‘Swamplandia!’

Fascinating to read about the life and decision-making of a Pulitzer fiction juror — in two parts recently from The New Yorker — and to see how close their impressions of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! were to those friends and I had. Nice to know the Pulitzer people aren’t too far from us regular readin’ folk. Thanks to friend Elizabeth, who remembered me as a fan of the book and the writer, for recommending the NYer pieces.

Author/juror Michael Cunningham wrote in the first piece:

Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” was a first novel, and, like many first novels, it contained among its wonders certain narrative miscalculations—the occasional overreliance on endearingly quirky characters, certain scenes that should have been subtler. Was a Pulitzer a slightly excessive response to a fledgling effort?

However, it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. Other first novels, among them Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” have won the Pulitzer. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance.

Nailed it on the latter. I’ve posted some of my favorite passages from the book here previously. Like the introduction of Louis Thanksgiving. Like the killer opening. Like a host of passage you couldn’t imagine reading in any other book or trusting to come from any other writer out there now.

On the former, I thought Cunningham got close but could have gone further. Yes, moving characters along a plot line sometimes got in the way of Russell’s usual sense of wonder, and that pressure seemed to result in uncomfortably quick conclusion. But what left me most torn on the book’s greatness was where Russell left the issue of pain.

I thought the book was a tremendous breakthrough for Russell in that, for the time in her work that I’ve read, she brought real, visceral harm and pain to characters for whom she — and, in turn, we — had come to care deeply. As book encountered that cumulative series of events, I was stunned. By the time the plot was in the thick of the injury, I couldn’t believe Russell had done it. I wasn’t sure she had done it the right way because I didn’t know what the right way for her would even be. But I admired it very much. A sense of wonder was a distance from a sense of darkness. To journey deeply into both was daring.

The book at its ending backed away from darkness. Things nearly grew happy at the end. They certainly got happy compared to a few chapters earlier. That shift was what made me think the book was great but not Pulitzer-winning great. The quick ending might have felt more natural to readers  — or less quick — had the tone not lightened substantially. The writer wasn’t yet ready to go through with the hit.  The hurried conclusion was the literary getaway car.

Or such was my impression. Was it right? Hard to say. I enjoyed part two of Cunningham’s essay for its emphasis on how in reading new books, like while judging awards, one had no history with which to judge a book. No legacy, no place within the canon, no historical perspective. One simply had to judge a new book with as best an understanding of the world as one had at that moment.

Something I loved about Russell’s book was how I wondered about its moves and my reactions to them for days after reading. Whatever my gut for where the book had gone right and wrong, the power and unique voice in Russell’s narrative had challenged my frame of interpretation, of examination. She had brought the reader into her story’s world enough where the reader began to consider, adopt and question how her world ran. Such a quality made the Pulitzer-finalist spot much deserved.

Favorite things collide!

Boston Globe Ideas, public radio, offbeat news, and Karen Russell.

From Ideas:

He’s nicknamed “the 52 hertz whale” because that’s the frequency at which he sings his whale songs (most whales sing at between 15 and 25 hertz). His weird voices seems to have alienated all the other whales; the only people who listen to him are Navy sonar engineers, who have tracked his movements since 1992 using a classified system of submarine-detecting hydrophones. No one has ever seen the 52 hertz whale, and so no one knows why his voice is so high. Scientists speculate that he could be malformed, a “hybrid” between two species of whale, or simply deaf.

From American Public Media’s The Dinner Party Download show:

Swamplandia! is coming

Among searches finding this site, I’ve noticed a lot of folks Googling for Karen Russell’s Swamplandia book. Clicking reveals the book comes in February! With an exclamation in the title! Swamplandia! I can’t wait.

From September, the Book Case has the really, really good first lines.

Chapter One: The Beginning of the End

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. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.

This month, the Lemuria Bookstore Blog has a plot summary.

Set in the swamplands of Florida, Russell’s novel focuses on the Bigtree family:  owners of the theme park Swamplandia!, faux Native-Americans, and alligator wrestlers.  The narration oscillates between the youngest Bigtree child Ava and her older brother Kiwi, and it explores the heartache of losing Hilola Bigtree, wife, mother, and alligator-wrestler extraordinaire, to cancer.

In addition to their grief, the family must cope with the loss of interest in Floridian swampland culture and history—essentially the Bigtree way of life and source of pride…

On the Amazon page, Carl Hiassen says he can’t recall the last time “a first novel that made such a rich and lasting impression.” Booklist calls the book “ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive.” Cool.

From July, Random House Library Services interviews Russell.

Q: Do you have a favorite library or librarian from your past?
A: I have a favorite English teacher, this patron saint of grammar, Miss Madeleine Timmis, who gave me Michael Crichton and John Grisham books on the sly and without whose encouragement I would never have become a writer, I’m convinced. And I still remember the whole-body thrill I felt at age seven when our grade school librarian, Sister Patricia, gave me “special access” to the grown up kid books early on, which was maybe the best compliment of my life to date—to get to exit the patronizingly carpeted “bean bag” area of our very tiny library and freely touch the spines of the “adult” (read: Nancy Drew) books. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t cite the library as their favorite childhood place—I remember it as a nerd’s Valhalla.

Karen Russell back in The New Yorker, swamp-gloriously

If you saw me smiling on the train Wednesday morning, I was reading the start of Karen Russell’s “The Dredgeman’s Relevation.” If you saw me linger on the platform that evening, I was reading the story’s end.

Her fiction in a July New Yorker is the story I’d most anticipated of the magazine’s “20 under 40” series. Russell is a random acquaintance of this blog, and I’ve been a fan of her writing since first reading it. In her stories — usually somewhere between the magical and the grotesque, often equally joyful and gothic — she makes investment. You get the feeling she has to reach a personal, sustained suspension of disbelief for each sentence. At least I get that feeling. The voices beat reality.

Her relative absence from publishing as she’s worked on her first book has been no easy time for a Karen Russell fan. Which, granted, is likely much easier than being Russell, as she actually has to write the book.

So, if you do one good thing for yourself today (and you should), read “The Dredgeman’s Relevation.” Print the pages, take them on the train with you and smile until you’re engrossed. Here are five lines from the story — the first sentence and four non-spoiler others. Now go places.

“The dredgeman had a name, Louis Thanksgiving Auschenbliss, but lately he preferred to think of himself as a profession.”

“Lightning sent down its white spider legs outside the boxcar doors and crawled up the pine trunks, trailing fires.”

“Outside, rising from the ground like the earth’s own exhalation, came the odor of peat, a great seawall of it, nothing so subtle or evanescent as a fragrance — no, this was stuff with a true stink.”

“The insects had been a chronic irritation on the C.C.C. barge, but out here on the marshy open prairie they were pestilential, their sawing sound filling the air like a cruel ventriloquy of the men’s own thirst.”

“He did not have any headaches that day, or dark presentiments.”

Let’s hope they have some writing with the list

I’m excited to see Karen Russell, long a fav of this blog, on The New Yorker list of “20 under 40” fiction writers. “The list will be published in the double fiction issue of The New Yorker that arrives on newsstands Monday,” the NYT tells us. Can we have writing with this list, please?

Between Russell, the fantastically debuting Joshua Ferris, all the folks who have blown me away in their New Yorker work (like Yiyun Li), let’s feature their short stuff and forget about Talk of the Town for a week.

In related news, it appears that Russell’s Swamplandia! is now due for either a February 2011 or spring 2011 release. Looking forward to it.

Update, days later: Should’ve mentioned that I first heard about the issue via Gawker’s quality “How to Complain About The New Yorker’s 20 Favorite Writers Under 40.” And the post answers my concern — “eight of whom will be published in an upcoming ‘fiction’ special; the other 12 in subsequent issues of the magazine.” Awesome.

Karen Russell’s book closer?

As promised, the New Yorker has begun posting video of its Valentine’s “Love Is Strange” Speakeasy, and we get highly watchable readings from Jeffrey Eugenides — already discussed here — and Karen Russell.

Russell, you may remember, has shown up in this blog since May 2004, when she was Nerve’s Strumpet22 and on her way to cool and known young writerdom. This video brings no news of Russell’s coming book, a follow-up to her terrific St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves collection of short stories, but her appearance now seems promising.

Other potentially good news? Her agent has a blurb: “In Swamplandia!, celebrated young storyteller Karen Russell tells the tale of the Bigtree dynasty, who own a deteriorating alligator theme park and café on the coast of Florida. Russell takes some very contemporary elements, theme parks, real estate wars, and a freakish and individualized American family and injects ancient drama/tragedy into it. The result is rich, stylistically brilliant, and wholly original. This much anticipated first novel will be published by Alfred A. Knopf.” No date given, but still.

If you’ve read St. Lucy’s, you know this setting. “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” is the first story in the book and maybe this blog’s favorite. Russell notes in one ’06 interview about the book that “it picks up where ‘Ava Wrestles the Alligator’  leaves off.” An ’07 Esquire column has more: “On a good day, writing about Ava’s adventure is pure joy. On a bad day, I want to pull each of my hairs out individually. I’ll start to doubt the very premise of the novel. I’ve got these noisy critical voices inside of me, a mean bunch who I like to visualize as a chorus of spinster aunts. I think they subsist on vinegar and unsalted pretzels; they heckle me continuously as I write. The aunts fill the stands of a dumpy dog track and place dollar bets on how badly the novel is going to turn out. I’ve found the best way to shut these haters up is to listen to a lot of hip-hop. … [Kanye discussion] … My current favorite is Ice Cube’s 1999 hit You Can Do It (Put Your Back in to It). Perhaps Ice Cube did not write this song to inspire first-time novelists. In fact, I’m pretty sure the ‘it’ in question involves moving your ass at the velocity of a helicopter rotor and having 14 hours of intercourse with Ice Cube. Well, I have reinterpreted You Can Do It for my purposes…”

I belong to electric guitar innovator Les Paul

Do you live in New York? If so, you need to go somewhere for me. The New Yorker Festival is coming up fast, and many of this blog’s favorites are going to be there.

Who, you ask? Scheduled are: Edward P. Jones (“Volvo,” “By twenty five,” “D.C., New York, memory“), Karen Russell (“Reading Karen Russell,” “The cover: The word ‘Stories’ in the wolf’s bite“) Jonathan Franzen (“Sending the tablet into the sea,” “On reading“), Orhan Pamuk (“All the drunk collected tokens,” “The best part of the ‘Journeys’ issue“), Malcolm Gladwell (“A most reasonable ‘fro,” “Before the Super Bowl“), Jeffrey Toobin, and many more. Enough? I want John McPhee to canoe-surf the crowd, but I’m not holding my breath.

The cover: The word “Stories” in the wolf’s bite

There are strands in my life that I let drop. I spread a hand as wide as possible and close it on as many as I can. Those strands I hold together, and the rest I watch lying around the outside. On whatever surface. They’re obviously there, but to pick them up I’d need to open my fist and lose others. Work is exempt, sifted and juggled with the other hand that doesn’t matter as much. It’s the grip on your good hand that means everything. That goes and you fall. But grip tight enough and eventually you fall asleep.

Reading books is one of the outside strands, an unknowable exercise in appreciation and pause for the secretly-fidgeting completist. Sitting still enough to focus, focusing enough to take in this page, paging unconsciously enough to ignore the numbers and never think of thumb-counting ahead to the break, breaking enough but not so much to condone a rush of relief. When you love words and consider the above, you’re a traitor. I am. So you read for desperate little stretches and hope to get caught up enough to forget.

I read St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves this afternoon, the short-stories publishing debut for Karen Russell, mentioned here a number of times in the past, mostly recently when I bought the book in December. I’d already read two of the stories in the New Yorker and loved them both. But then work heated up and time to got to seeming shorter than it actually was, shutting off different valves to send all the steam where I thought it was needed. It wasn’t, of course, but you’d rather have too much steam than run out. I would. I shouldn’t assume for you as you do quite fine. Enough ahead, and not doubting that yet, I got to the book today.

Somewhere along the way I cracked the top of the binding. The first three paragraphs of the first story legitimized it. The first two were setup, descriptive and rushed so as to be admittedly minor in the story’s course, until the moment just before the third paragraph when the course took hold.

My sister and I are staying in Grandpa Sawtooth’s old house until our father, Chief Bigtree, gets back from the Mainland. It’s our first summer alone in the swamp. “You girls will be fine,” the Chief slurred. “Feed the gators, don’t talk to strangers. Lock the door at night.” The Chief must have forgotten that it’s a screen door at Grandpa’s — there is no key, no lock. The old house is a rust-checkered yellow bungalow at the edge of the wild bird estuary. It has a single, airless room; three crude, palmetto windows, with mosquito-blackened sills; a tin roof that hums with the memory of rain. I love it here. Whenever the wind gusts in off the river, the sky rains leaves and feathers. During mating season, the bedroom window rattles with the ardor of birds.

Now the thunder makes the thin window glass ripple like wax paper. Summer rain is still the most comforting sound that I know. I like to pretend that it’s our dead mother’s fingers, drumming on the ceiling above us. In the distance, an alligator bellows — not one of ours, I frown, a free agent. Our gators are hatched in incubators. If they make any noise at all, it’s a perfunctory grunt, bored and sated. This wild gator has an inimitable cry, much louder, much closer. I smile and pull the blankets around my chin. If Osceola hears it, she’s not letting on. My sister is lying on the cot opposite me. Her eyes are wide open, and she is smiling and smiling in the dark.

“Hey, Ossie? Is it just you in there?”