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August 9, 2011

Book Notes - Karen Russell ("Swamplandia")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Karen Russel's debut novel Swamplandia is stunningly immersive. Set in the Thousand Islands of the Florida Everglades and filled with an assortment of memorably quirky and unique characters, this story of an alligator-wrestling family is clever, engaging, and simply an unforgettable tale of family and coming of age.

In the New York Times, Emma Donoghue wrote of the book:

"If Russell's style is a North American take on magical realism, then her commitment to life's nitty-gritties anchors the magic; we are more inclined to suspend disbelief at the moments that verge on the paranormal because she has turned 'Swamplandia!' into a credible world. "

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In her own words, here is Karen Russell's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Swamplandia:

1. Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan

My dad gave me this cassette when I was nine and I thought of this song often when I was working on the Kiwi Bigtree's sections of my novel. Kiwi is the family rebel in a clan of alligator wrestlers, a prodigal son who eschews the Gator Pit (and who uses words like "eschews") and dreams of going to college. He leaves Swamplandia! for the mainland where it turns out he's not so smart after all, and he becomes terribly homesick. Figuratively and literally, he's also more or less living in the belly of a giant whale. So "Subterranean Homesick Blues" seemed like an apt Kiwi theme.

I wanted to use the first lines as an epigraph for Kiwi, but we couldn't afford to quote the lyrics. But thanks to Largehearted Boy I get to share them on the cheap here: "Look out kid/It's something you did/God knows when but you're doing it again…"

And later:

Look out kid
You're gonna get hit
By users, cheaters, six time losers
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool, lookin for a new fool
Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meter

Maybe because my dad gave it to me, I always hear it as this wink and a warning from the older generation. I love the energy of this song, and the way it combines hilarity and urgency and an honest acknowledgment of all the future grief and danger that this particular kid will face.

My dad's favorite line, which would make him laugh until his face looked like a crinkle-cut fry, was Dylan's final one: "the pumps don't work/cause the vandals took the handles."

2. Juana Molina, "Son"

This is lost-in-the-forest, lunar dreamscape, downriver music. Juana Molina is an Argentinean singer-songwriter whose got some weird, crepuscular sensibilities. I love the guitar and the almost avian stutter of her voice. I think this lady is a sorceress. Her last name means "windmill." (Her first name means "John." Just to bring it back to earth).

3. Donnie Darko

Pretty nerdy, huh? I used to listen to this CD nonstop when I was writing late at night, working on the stories that became St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. It was a huge pleasure to return to while revising this novel. This is Michael Andrew's original score, plus Gary Jules' excellent cover of "Mad World." It's so good! So totally strange. Like "A Midsummer Night's Eve" set in outer space. He's put together these spooky, funny instrumentals that can sound like pianos being played underwater, honey dripping out of a hive. "Atmospheric" is an understatement, because I swear the arrangements here work more like a spell for temporary synesthesia; I don't think you can hear these songs without seeing a flood of colors.

4. "Rising Down," the Roots

A lot of swagger and anger, furious drums, incredibly powerful lyrics. I admire these guys so much. It's a great album to listen to if you're feeling passive, cowardly, or narcotized, dangerously comfortable. I'd find myself reaching for it when I was writing these sections told from Kiwi's point of view because I think it's music suited to his emotional state—he's a naïve teenager who is just waking up to certain injustices in "mainland" America, plugging his personal horror at his family's circumstances into a much larger outrage. From a narrative standpoint, I also like that they start with "Rising Down" and end with "Rising Up"—after lyrics that relentlessly target racism, urban poverty, drug addiction, violence of every stripe, it's sincerely uplifting. The Fender Rhodes comes back! An earned, qualified optimism.

5. "Mariel," Osvaldo Golijov

This is a haunting piece for cello and marimba, Stygian but joyful, too.

According to Golijov: "I wrote this piece in memory of my friend Mariel Stubrin. I attempted to capture that short instant before grief, in which one learns of the sudden death of a friend who was full of life: a single moment frozen forever in one's memory, and which reverberates through the piece, among the waves and echoes of the Brazilian music that Mariel loved."

It's a beautiful piece to see performed. My friend Chris pointed out that the cellist looks a little like a boatman, rowing everyone downriver with his bow.

6. "Bye Bye Miss American Pie," Don McLean

As a kid this song really scared me; I loved it, I found it absolutely mystifying. What the hell was Don talking about? What was up with those dudes getting soused by the levee, and the uncanny proximity of pie to death? To this day, the "Chevy to the levee" chorus brings on a strong recollection of eavesdropping on adults, where even if I understood the literal meaning of their words I was still ultimately incapable of putting the larger picture together (I remember hearing "whisky and rye" and thinking that the good old boys were drinking some kind of distilled sandwich bread).

Now I think there is some very American undertow at work in it—an incongruity between McLean's easy strumming and his dark lyrics, the cheerful, matter-of-fact delivery of a dirge. The joke and the ache all mixed up there.
As a kid, I connected the "dry levee" in the chorus to the stories I grew up hearing about an edenic green Florida vs. our paved and dyked South Florida. This was during the eighties, when everybody was starting to reckon with the damage we'd done to the Everglades and it seemed like every time you walked outside, more construction had revised Miami's skyline. You get that valedictory sting in this song.

7. "Stay Fly," Three 6 Mafia

I went on a tax-deductible "research" trip to Gatorland in Orlando with my brother and my father, and on the ride up this song played nonstop. In my mind, it's become the soundtrack for feeding frozen Purdue drumsticks to alligators. My brother and I would text each other the lyrics at random intervals for years afterwards. Something about the casually-delivered, ebullient threats ("You leave your drink around me, BELIEVE that drink's gonna get drunk up/You leave your girl around me [lewder rhyming promise]…") calls to mind the chronic stress of being Kiwi's age. You can't put your drink down to go to the bathroom at a party without risking a total reversal of fortune. "Staying fly," for a poor kid like Kiwi, is a more or less foredoomed goal, but he keeps trying.

8. Beyonce, "Crazy in Love"

When I was raw from writing this book, certain sections of which felt emotionally pretty costly, it was good to take a break. I know it's lame to choreograph a parody of your own book in your mind, but that's what I found myself doing on bus rides. Sometimes I'd come up for air while writing the Ava/Ossie sections and think, my God, these kids are actually crazy in love.

Like one trillion people across the globe, I love Beyonce. If I had the budget to do the book trailer of my dreams, it would be a musical number with Osceola and Louis Thanksgiving set to this song. Louis is the ghost of a boy who died in a dredging accident in the 1930s, Ossie's "boyfriend." I liked to picture Ossie in her purple turban dancing around the ship he haunts: "I'm not myself lately/I'm foolish/I don't do this!"

For Beyonce, being "crazy in love" seems to manifest as dry-humping a staircase in stilettos while, a little to the left, Jay-Z raps beside several flaming trash cans; whereas for Ossie, it means wandering into the Florida swamp at night and letting the ghost of a dead boy possess her body. But you know, I don't think those two things are as dissimilar as they initially sound.

9. PJ Harvey "My Beautiful Leah"

PJ Harvey's vocals always give me goosebumps and this song is a cold wind. Osceola was a very difficult character for me to write—she slips out of the world while her sister Ava watches. For me, this song distills all the helpless horror of watching someone you love disappear before your eyes--changing into someone unrecognizable, because of sickness or addiction, before literally disappearing. Then PJ becomes Leah's huntress (Did you see her walking?/Did she come around here, sir ?/She was always so needing/Said "I have no-one"/Even as I held her/She went out looking for someone). The last line of this song is terrifying.

10. "Mi Burrito Sabanero (DJ Laz remix)"

I guess this carol seems like an odd choice for a book about alligator wrestlers, but it makes me homesick for Miami like no other. I think it's representative of the wildly remixed group of people who make South Florida great, all of us immigrants and recent arrivals—almost nobody who lives in Miami goes back more than a generation. This song is Christmas in Miami, and if there's one thing Miami knows how to do it's take an already fast song and speed that b up. This is a remix from DJ Laz of Power 96, a.k.a. Lazaro Mendez, a.k.a. "the Pimp with the Limp." I love DJ Laz for adding Latin BASS to the lyric "Hurry up little donkey, we are going to see Jesus!"

To this day I cannot hear this song without clapping—usually in the car, on the Dixie Highway, where it's fatally stupid to do so.

Karen Russell and Swamplandia links:

audio excerpt from the book

Entertainment Weekly review
Publishers Weekly review
Kirkus Reviews review

All Things Considered profile of the author
Art Beat interview with the author
The Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
The Book Bench interview with the author
Book(ed) Passage interview with the author
Cultist interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Paris Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists