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Friday, May 10, 2013

What I'm Reading: Vampires in the Lemon Grove

It is not a secret that I adored Karen Russell's only novel Swamplandia!, but when I heard her new book would be short stories, I was a bit sad.  I wanted to sink my teeth into one of her worlds for another whole novel. But that didn't stop me from placing a reserve on Vampires in the Lemon Grove (herein VitLG) so I could read it soon after it came out.  And, my goodness, I had nothing to worry about.

VitLG was awesome. Each story grabbed on to me, shook me around a bit, and let me go, a little unsteady on my feet, but excited to see what the next story had in store.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself.  VitLG is a book of 8 short stories.  They are all on the "things are not as they seem" side, but for different reasons.  They range from funny to scary to just plain odd, but each one is thought provoking. But before I go into more of the appeal detail, I found this great review by Jenny on Goodreads where she very quickly summarizes each story:
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove - two ancient vampires try to satiate their desires by eating lemons
  • Reeling for the Empire - human silkworms
  • The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979 - maybe the seagulls are the only ones really paying attention
  • Proving Up - starts as a struggling farm family story, ends in a ... i can't even.... *shiver*
  • The Barn at the End of Our Term - dead presidents alive in horses' bodies (actual presidents, not the band)... this one made me laugh more than any of the others.
  • Dougbert Shackleton's Rules of Antarctic Tailgating - Sometimes you're the whale, but you're probably usually the krill.
  • The New Veterans - PTSD, massage, tattoos, and what is healing, exactly?
  • The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis - I couldn't decide what I thought of this one. It did have the only bit I marked, because it is about a librarian: "I think we needed that librarian to follow us around the hallways for every minute of every school day, reading us her story of our lives, her fine script of who we were."
You can go to Jenny's blog for more of her reviews. I think she has parsed down each story into the soundbite of what it is about and why you would like it.  If you click through to her full review you can also see that she provided a readalike for each story.

 Most of the stories are on the creepier side, which I personally love, but the range is from pure out terror-- like in the AMAZING "Proving Up" which begins as a tale of the American frontier and slowly builds an uneasy atmosphere to an all our horror ending [loved it]-- to seemingly silly-- like in the story of Antarctic tailgating where our narrator risks life and limb to root for the krill to beat the killer whale.  I say seemingly silly because the story's glib tone and structure hide a larger issue of the fate of the underdog in real life.

But I think the story that best summed up the entire book for me was "Reeling for the Empire."  It had a darker tone and an original premise-- poor Japanese girls being taken from their homes to make silk in a factory but in reality they were being turned into silk worms.  So it also had speculative elements.  It was a thought provoking, coming of age story that made you really think about how much say you have on your place in the work.

A combination of some of these things can be found in most of the stories, but in "Reeling for the Empire," they are all in one place. I get the marketing decision to put the first story as the title since it is provocative and Vampires sell books, but "Reeling" is the anchor story here.

The best way to describe the overall feel of this book is-- slightly askew.  It is a reality that seems true but something is off.  And when you are confronted with this askew picture, it makes you think about how and why things are the way they are.  This is what the stories is VitLG do to the reader.
For me as a reader, this is the perfect kind of story.  I think "slightly askew" will replace "macabre" as my new sound bite description of my personal reader profile.

On a side note, I have been reading books of connected short stories recently (click here for details) so this was a change for me.  Since each story was a complete piece on its own, I was able to read this book in chunks, which fit my reading needs at that time.  I was able to read a bit and then take a break to prepare for the March book club, I was able to read a bit more and then leave it at home while I went on Spring Break where I read a novel, and I was able to pick it right back up and finish after returning. So that is another appeal of this book, the ability to read it piecemeal in the midst of a million distractions and still enjoy it.

Three Words That Describe This Book: stories, thought provoking, slightly askew

Readalikes:  As I was reading VitLG, especially during "Reeling for the Empire," I could not stop thinking about my all time favorite "slightly askew" short story writer, Steven Millhauser. Then this led me to thinking about other writers like Millhauser who I enjoy: Kevin Brockmeier and Keith Donohue. Back in 2011, I had this post talking about all three writers and their style:
Why I was particularly happy to see Donohue's review is that authors like Brockmeier, Donohue, and Millhauser, are very hard to suggest readalikes for. It is because they do not write traditional genre fiction. You could categorize them all as literary fiction, but that would not hit at their appeal. They all have a level of fantasy in their work. It is a bit more speculative than magical realism, but not really straight fantasy. They also all use their speculative elements to raise thought provoking questions about our world and the choices we make. If you laid out the plot summaries of they work side-by-side, however, you would not be able to see any similarity between their books. Their similarity lies in the tone, mood, characterizations, and style of their work. Things that are harder to assess.

Russell is very similar to these three writers.

A female short story writer whose tone and feel comes close to Russell's is the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa.  She also crafts "slightly askew" short stories and novels.  Her most recent collection is Revenge, which I have been meaning to read.  A few years ago I did read The Housekeeper and the Professor, a story which has stayed with me to this day. Its unsettling premise of a man whose memory is on a 80 minute loop. That's right, his memory only lasts 80 minutes. Intriguing odd, and slightly askew, right?

I would also suggest the 4 novella length stories that make up Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars. Click here for my review.

Have a great weekend and a nice Mother's Day

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