Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads): From the author of the New York Times best seller Swamplandia!—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—a magical new collection of stories that showcases Karen Russell’s gifts at their inimitable best.

A dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest.  A community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends. A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso. When a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment, an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear. And in the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.

And here's what I thought:  One of the things I love most about collections of short stories is that if I find one that I don't like so much, there's always at least a few others that I really do like -- and that's what happened with this book, as well.

I haven't read anything else by Karen Russell, although I was familiar with Swamplandia.  However, I had read reviews of this book, so when our library's copy came in and I saw it on the shelf, I grabbed it.   While I didn't love all of the stories, there were a few that I really enjoyed reading, and which have stuck in my mind after finishing the book.   The story Vampires in the Lemon Grove was a really interesting take on the usual vampire story, and it was kind of melancholy, which I liked.  It's less about being a vampire than it is about appetite in general, and about love.   That's not to say that the story is without humor, though ---- admittedly, I have a somewhat dark sense of humor, but I found some things that gave me a wry smile.

The two other stories that have stayed in my mind are Reeling for the Empire, where women have morphed into a kind of silkworm, and The New Veterans, where a massage therapist is trying to help a war veteran.  Also, the story The Barn at the End of Our Term ---- where some of the ex-presidents have apparently been reincarnated into horses.     Russell has a talent for taking things in disturbing directions, while at the same time making them so interesting that you keep turning the pages.  As mentioned with the first story, there is some wry/dark humor that runs through her writing, and that's something I enjoy, as well.   Are they light stories?  No.   Are they thought-provoking?  Definitely.

While I don't know if this collection would be for everyone, I'd be tempted to recommend it to people who like the writing of Caitlin R. Kiernan, or Jonathan Carroll.

First lines from one of the stories:  From Vampires in the Lemon Grove: 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 vendelli.  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 contagious, close as raindrops.  My wife has no patience for this sort of meditation.  "Jesus Christ, Clyde," she says.  "You need a hobby."


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