Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I can still remember the experience of reading Karen Russell's first collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. It was a Tuesday in 2006 and I was working at a bookstore in Nacogdoches. Tuesdays were my favorite, because that's when the new books came out. I always worked the morning shift, so I was the first one who got to see what new prizes awaited the reading public. Those mornings, I balanced my cup of coffee on a nearby table while reading the inside cover and first few pages of everything before I shelved it. When I got to St. Lucy, however, I couldn't stop. I took the book home, and I've loved Karen Russell ever since. 

(Side note: I really miss working in a bookstore. Never before was I so up-to-date with the publishing world, so aware of what was being bought and sold. All writers should, I think, work in a bookstore at least once in their life. It's almost as enlightening as reading slush for a literary journal.) 

Since that fateful Tuesday, I've read and reread St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I've taught the title story to all my fiction classes. I read and had mixed feelings about her novel Swamplandia!. And now I'm back to loving her again, this time for her new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  

Vampires in the Lemon Grove recaptures what originally drew me Russell's writing by making the mysterious strangely and satisfyingly mundane. When I teach her stories to my class, it's always in conjunction with a lesson on magical realism - that is, a genre where an otherwise realistic world is home to a single magical, fantastic element, shining a light on our lives the way purely realistic fiction can't quite. The stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove accomplish this beautifully. They're about vampires, and young girls transforming into silkworms, and US presidents reincarnated as horses, and memories changing under a masseuse's hands. But they're also about relationships ending, and learning to live with regret, and our expectations of the afterlife, and how much of our present we owe our past. In other words, these stories are about life as we know it, despite the magic woven through them. 

My favorite stories in the collection were "Reeling for the Empire," in which young Japanese girls are held hostage, forced to spin silk for a factory while slowly transforming into silkworms - a disturbing but apt metaphor for the sweat shops still rampant today. The narrator struggles with guilt and regret, but it's only when she decides to face her past that she unlocks the key to saving her future. It's got a great first person narrator, prose that feels nearly lyrical, and a not-so-subtle feminist thread (pun intended) that had me cheering through my gasps of horror.

Speaking of horror, "Proving Up" was one of the most tense and horrific reading experiences of my life. I won't say much more about it, expect that I fully expect that story to haunt me for as long as I live. There are other great stories as well - the title story, for example, and "The New Veterans" are definitely keepers. I wasn't crazy about "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules of Antarctic Tailgating" - it felt like a McSweeney's piece that goes on a bit too long. And "The Barn at the End of the World" was a little slow, but that might be blamed on the fact that I kept trying to read it right before bed. 

Overall, I loved this collection. It was weird and wonderful, classic Karen Russell. I was about to say I can't wait to see what she writes next, but then I remembered she has a digital-only novella called Sleep Donation out this week. If you were wondering what I might read next, don't bother. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some downloading to do.

Have you read Vampires in the Lemon Grove? Do you have a favorite in the collection? If so, let's chat about it!