Tag Archives: short stories

Storied Places

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Trade; 304 pages; $16).

This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (Hogarth; 240 pages; $16).

The best stories are those suffused with colorful, detailed settings—tales in which place is not only vital but a central component of the narrative.  When a writer gets it right, the setting becomes a character itself.  And that’s when the magic begins.

Two story collections emphasize the significance of place and herald the arrival of two powerful and confident women writers.  In her collection of stories, Battleborn, Top 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree Claire Vaye Watkins swallows the folklore of the American West, chews it up, and then spits it back out as she brilliantly reimagines the region.  Conversely, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University and a native Hawaiian, captures the essence of Hawaii, its people, and its cultural traditions in her debut story collection This Is Paradise.

battlebornBattleborn consists of ten bold and gritty tales.  Watkins takes us from Gold Rush to ghost town to desert to brothel and weaves such passion and intensity into each story that she leaves us breathless.  Her keen insight and gorgeous, lyrical realism bring to mind literary greats like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx.  More than any other writer of the American West, Watkins leaves an indelible mark.

Watkins does not shy away from the personal in her collection.  The author confronts the mythology of her own family history, a legacy that includes notorious killer and cult leader Charles Manson, in what is perhaps her best piece entitled “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  Her father, Paul Watkins, was one of Manson’s followers whose main responsibilities included wrangling new girls for Manson.  In exposing her life and the stigma of her father’s past, Watkins bares herself before us, allowing us to witness both the rawness of her past and her faith in readers. It takes guts for an author to write herself into the narrative.  Her candidness makes this collection rare and beautiful.

From the American West we venture to Hawaii, the setting of the six stories in Kahakauwila’s haunting and compelling collection This Is Paradise.   Kahakauwila reveals the conflicting world that is Hawaii—old vs. new, tradition vs. modernity, and “native” Hawaiian vs. tourist.  Hawaii, or at least Kahakauwila’s Hawaii, is a place of opposition, and the author does a splendid job of getting to the heart of both the state and its people.  This Is Paradise is as majestic as Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani.

In the titular tale, “This Is Paradise,” Kahakauwila uses the first person plural (“we”) to tell the story of a young, carefree American this is paradisetourist who gets a taste of Hawaii’s dark side from the perspective of the women of Waikiki.  Their distinctive voices inject emotion into the story, easily making it one of the strongest in the collection.  Here, Kahakauwila’s dazzling writing is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka’s formidable novella The Buddha in the Attic.  Kahakauwila then explores the almost double life of a woman seeking revenge in the cockfighting ring in “Wanle.”  In “The Old Paniolo Way,” Kahakauwila illumines a son coping with the imminent death of his father and struggling with his own identity.  Deeply flawed characters and achingly real situations give This Is Paradise a universal appeal.

In their short story collections, Claire Vaye Watkins and Kristiana Kahakauwila prove that as much as we shape our world, that place, in turn, influences us.  Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the desert of Nevada; Kahakauwila was born in Hawaii and raised in Southern California.  Whether the focus is on the American West or modern Hawaii, these tales have extraordinary power and meaning because of the place in which they are set.

 

 

 

 

 

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (A.A. Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95).

vampires in the lemon grove

            Karen Russell acts as a spirit guide to her readers as she takes them on an incredible journey through the bizarre, fabulous, chilling, and horrifying world of Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  There is nothing to fear, though, in Russell’s third book and her second short-story collection; this Pulitzer-Prize finalist is always in control of the macabre, holding our hands as she leads us down dark passages and through shadows.  The author of Swamplandia! takes us to places we’ve never been before and would not dare pass through alone.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove features eight extremely imaginative fables where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.  In each one, Russell shows a depth and maturity that belie her thirty-one years.  From the seemingly innocuous “small, kindly Italian grandfather” of the titular story to the young masseuse with a healing touch in “The New Veterans,” each story is more intricate and multifaceted, more complex and multilayered, than the next.

For Clyde, the main character in Russell’s first story, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” lemons can be tantalizing if you are a bloodsucker.  Clyde and Magreb have settled in the small Italian village of Santa Francesca, where tourists flock to see the famous bat caves.  The caves are not what drew the vampire couple to the village and nor was it the promise of vacationers.  Clyde and Magreb have given up drinking blood; instead, they stanch their cravings through lemons.  They’ve traveled everywhere and tried everything—“fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls”—but only the lemons give them any reprieve.  It’s a nice life living in the bat caves until Clyde finds he can no longer change form.  “I can’t shudder myself out of this old man’s body.  I can’t fly anymore,” Russell writes.  Clyde has forgotten how to fly.  She may be writing about vampires, but this story expresses so much about aging.

In “Reeling for the Empire,” Russell invents a group of Japanese girls, “silkworm-workers,” who eventually rebel.  Using textured precision, she invents an insular world in which reeling for the empire is a revered calling yet painful beyond measure.  Russell is like the silk spinners in her story except she weaves together a beautiful tapestry of transcendent tales.

Nowhere is that ability more powerful than in the story titled “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” perhaps her best in the collection.  Carrying pieces of fruit, a little girl walks into a barn and approaches a horse.  “Hi horsies,” she calls to him and to the other horses in the stalls around him.  These are no ordinary steeds, however; they are dead presidents.  The horse “licks the girl’s palm according to a code that he’s worked out – – – -, which means that he is Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the nineteenth president of the United States of America, and that she should alert the local officials.”  Hayes cannot decide if he and eleven other deceased presidents are in heaven or hell and spends his days longing for his wife, Lucy, the “first First Lady,” and sugar cubes.  One day, James Garfield bolts.  Because they are ex-presidents, the horses yearn to escape their confined lives just as Garfield did.  John Adams takes the lead in their plan to flee: “But we can’t live out our afterlives as common beasts,” Adams proclaims.  “There must be some way back to Washington!  I am still alive, and I am certainly no horse.”  A revolution is thus born.

Two of Russell’s stories symbolize our faith in forces larger than ourselves, universal influences we do not nor cannot understand.   Nal, a boy with a crush on his brother’s girlfriend, finds a seagull’s nest in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979.”  Nothing is mundane about this discovery.  The nest contains artifacts that have shaped Nal’s life and the lives of those around him.  In “The New Veterans,” my favorite of Russell’s fables, Beverly, a masseuse, works on the back of an Iraq War veteran.  A large tattoo covers the vet’s back.  This pageant of ink is like a map of all he experienced in warfare.  When Beverly puts her hands on the soldier’s skin to alleviate his pain, she somehow alters the tattoo’s landscape.  It is if her hands cannot only heal but can change and even erase her client’s past.  Both Nal and Beverly commune with the universe in their own unique ways, just as Russell herself connects with readers through her pitch-perfect prose.  Her words alter us.

Menacing, even chilling and horrifying, undercurrents run through two of Russell’s tales: “Proving Up” and “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.”  Evil lurks just over the shoulder or at least just over the next hill in “Proving Up,” set during Homestead-era Nebraska.  Young Miles Zegner mounts his horse and rides over to a neighboring farm.  As Russell illustrates, life is difficult for the Zegner family.  Drought, hail, and locus mean most families barely survive, much less thrive. Miles carries something special with him: a glass window.  The Homestead of 1862 required “every claim shanty or dugout must have a real glass window”; only then would the land rightfully belong to the homesteader.  The Zegners share the window with their neighbors so they can “prove up” when the Homestead inspector comes to call.  Miles learns that windows sometimes show us things we do not want to see, like trees made of bone, dead sisters who “rise out of the sod, as tall as the ten-foot wheat,” and a man whose “eyes are bottomless.”  A group of boys get much more than they bargained for when they bully a fellow student in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.”  This tale is Russell’s homage to the master of horror, Stephen King, and it shows.  The boys find a “scarecrow boy,” part wax doll and part scarecrow with “glass eyes and sculpted features” in the local park.  The boys are terrified by the doll’s uncanny resemblance to an epileptic boy who has vanished.  Russell’s story is definitely a didactic one in this instance.

Of the eight tales, only one, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” was not to my liking.  This story is less a narrative and more a set of rules expounded upon as Douglas Shackleton prepares to watch as “Team Krill” takes on “Team Whale,” complete with recipes.  “Rule Five-A: If your wife leaves you for a millionaire motel-chain-owning douchebag fan of Team Whale, make sure you get your beloved mock-bioluminescent Team Krill eyestalks out of the trunk of her Civil before she takes off.”  So different in tone and structure, it does not seem to fit with the rest of Russell’s collection and lacks the effect of the other tales.

Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove proves that the imagination of Karen Russell knows no bounds.  Russell is wild, fierce, wise, assured, and, most of all, uninhibited.  She just keeps getting better and better with everything she writes, whether it’s a sharp coming-of-age tale or a fabulous collection of fables.  Russell is at her peak and will certainly take home a Pulitzer one day.  What will this literary Wonder Woman do next?  With Russell’s almost super-human creativity and talent, nothing is impossible.

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Spotlight on Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

vampires

 

Karen Russell’s brand new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, will be released February 12.  I fell in love with Russell’s second book, Swamplandia! and also enjoyed her first short-story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

st. lucyswamp

Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes. She is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College.

karen russell

“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.

Karen Russell is one of today’s most celebrated and vital writers—honored in The New Yorker’s list of the twenty best writers under the age of forty, Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation’s five best writers under the age of thirty-five.  Her wondrous new work displays a young writer of superlative originality and invention coming into the full range and scale of her powers.” –From Random House

Here is an excerpt:

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.”

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.

Santa Francesca’s Lemon Grove, where I spend my days and nights, was part of a Jesuit convent in the 1800s. Today it’s privately owned by the Alberti family, the prices are excessive, and the locals know to buy their lemons elsewhere. In summers a teenage girl named Fila mans a wooden stall at the back of the grove. She’s painfully thin, with heavy black bangs. I can tell by the careful way she saves the best lemons for me, slyly kicking them under my bench, that she knows I am a monster. Sometimes she’ll smile vacantly in my direction, but she never gives me any trouble. And because of her benevolent indifference to me, I feel a swell of love for the girl.

Fila makes the lemonade and monitors the hot dog machine, watching the meat rotate on wire spigots. I’m fascinated by this machine. The Italian name for it translates as “carousel of beef.” Who would have guessed at such a device two hundred years ago? Back then we were all preoccupied with visions of apocalypse; Santa Francesca, the foundress of this very grove, gouged out her eyes while dictating premonitions of fire. What a shame, I often think, that she foresaw only the end times, never hot dogs.

To read more, go here.

I love this book and will review it next week.  If you love fables or even quirky stories, then Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a must-read for you!

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Little Sinners, And Other Stories by Karen Brown

Little Sinners, And Other Stories by Karen Brown (University of Nebraska Press; 208 pages; $17.95).

 

            Author Karen Brown has won several awards for her fiction writing.  Reading her new tightly-knit, intimate collection of short stories entitled Little Sinners, And Other Stories, it is easy to understand why.  Brown’s first collection, Pins and Needles, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.  Her stories have appeared in The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 and The Best American Short Stories 2008Little Sinners recently received the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.  When you read Brown’s work, you know you are in the hands of a skillful craftsman in her prime.  Little Sinners is seductive and captivating as it explores the complicated and complex world of domesticity.

 

Although Brown features male characters, most of her principal personalities are women.  Brown’s world is a woman’s world, one in which females defy stereotypes and carve out places and roles of their own.  Unexpected consequences ensue, and the women must always pick up the pieces in the aftermath.  All of Brown’s stories are very true to life because, as women, we know that is often the case.

 

Her vignettes are slices of domestic life, written with passion and, above all, realism. Some tales are erotic; some are suspenseful; all are compelling.  Among the strongest stories in the collection are the title story “Little Sinners,” “Swimming,” “Stillborn,” “The Philter,” and “An Heiress Walks into a Bar.”

 

An adult woman remembers a horrible trick she and her best childhood friend played on a little girl in “Little Sinners.”  “We weren’t bad girls,” the narrator insists.  “We were feral, unequivocally vicious, like girls raised by the mountain lions that occasionally slunk out of the wilderness….”  The girls never expected what happened next, and the woman still carries a great amount of guilt many years later.

 

In “Swimming,” a married woman and her lover swim the pools of her neighbors in the dark of night.  When they are seen, they become the talk of the neighborhood.  The woman, though, is in for a big surprise when she catches her daughter and a boy in the family pool.

 

“Stillborn” is my favorite of Brown’s short stories and also her best.  Diana, who is six-months pregnant, and her husband move into a cottage on the Long Island Sound.  He has cheated on his wife but promises it won’t happen again.  Diana seeks solace in the garden.  She digs in the dirt only to discover small bones buried there.  “Femur, fibula, humerus, clavicle.  Tiny bones, delicate and dirt-stained,” Brown writes.  Diana “stopped digging, the bones uncovered.”  She thinks, “I’ve dug too deep.”  The bones are of a baby.  Diana assumes the child was stillborn; the parents, she guesses, buried the dead infant in their yard as was the custom in earlier days.  However, when Brown shifts perspective from Diana to her neighbor, Mrs. Merrick, we see a different, and darker, side of the story.  This is truly where Brown shines as she shows domestic relationships, like plants in a garden, can have blights.

 

The most disturbing and chilling of all the stories in Little Sinners is “The Philter.”   Kit, a troubled housewife, meets Sarah in a grocery store.  Sarah’s mother has disappeared; the teen confides in Kit and practically drags her to her home for dinner.  When Sarah shows Kit how she spies on her own house, the duo see way more than they bargained for.  There is a voyeuristic quality and an illicitness to this piece.  Brown focuses on silences, what is unspoken, and on body language.  I was just as uncomfortable as Kit seemed to be.  It becomes clear that there is more to the disappearance of Sarah’s mother.

 

In another favorite story of mine, “An Heiress Walks into a Bar,” Esme is diagnosed with the same kind of cancer that killed her mother.  She grapples with her own mortality and the absence of her father, who disappeared years before.  When she was twelve, “her father put on his pale blue pinstripe suit, custom-made for a previous trip to the Bahamas, and left, never to be heard from again.”

 

Brown’s emotional stories cut to the quick.  They wound; they scar.  The stories in Little Sinners are intelligent, dark, deep, and murky, much like a woman’s soul.  Brown has a keen sense of what works.  At only 194 pages, Little Sinners is short, but its issues are weighty.  I dare you to read Little Sinners and come away empty.

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Going Wild

Going Wild

 Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner; 240 pages; $24).

 

            In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman explores how we are shaped by nature and how, in turn, nature shapes us.  Sometimes our relationship with nature is beautiful, but sometimes it can turn brutal. Bergman’s short story debut collection, which consists of twelve stories, is deeply moving and intensely thought-provoking.

Many of Bergman’s stories concentrate on the theme of motherhood.  Bergman tells all of her stories from the point of view of women.  This technique makes sense.  Women, like female animals, have the ability to create and sustain life.  We nurture and ferociously protect our young.  In “Housewifely Arts,” one of my favorites and one of Bergman’s strongest, a woman and her son go on a desperate journey to find her dead mother’s African Gray Parrot.  What is so special about this creature, you may ask.  The bird mimics the mother’s voice and she wants to hear her once again.  The woman in the story longs to reconnect with her mother; her desire is fruitless.  Other women in Bergman’s tale want to have children of their own.  In “The Urban Coop,” a childless woman is so close to her dog that the canine suffers separation anxiety and an accident when he is not with his mistress.  The dog substitutes for a child.  In “Another Story She Won’t Believe,” an alcoholic holds a wild animal in her arms and seeks atonement for the way she raised her daughter.  In another of my favorites, “Yesterday’s Whales,” Bergman introduces us to a woman whose boyfriend believes the end of the world is nigh.  He sees no point in bringing children into a world that is a ticking time bomb.  The woman gets pregnant and is then forced to make a choice.  Bergman writes with cleverness and compassion.  These stories will fill you with emotion.  However, not all these tales are about motherhood.

Other stories focus on nature and the environment.  In Bergman’s title story and another of her finest, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” a young woman hires an unsavory guide to take her and her father on a dangerous quest to find an ivory-billed woodpecker that may or may not be extinct.  Their journey leads to horrific consequences.  Bergman shows that no matter how hard we try, we cannot tame nature.  Indeed, as the doctor finds out in “Saving Face,” there is an animal in every one of us.  Some of us hide it better than others do.  Bergman does not shy away from discussing the precarious state of our environment.  In our world, nature is in danger.  In a story called “2050,” Bergman takes us into the future.  The ocean is dying.  For one woman, her father’s whole life is the ocean and the life it sustains.  As the ocean declines, so does the woman’s father.  This is perhaps the most sobering of Bergman’s stories.  She gives us something to think about.

In Bergman’s stories, the bonds we have with animals and the connections they have with us shine.  Bergman is a wonderful new talent.  Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for spring 2012 and an Indie Next Pick for March.  Bergman does so well with her subject for a reason.  She lives in Vermont on a farm with her husband, a veterinarian, and their rescue animals.  If you love short stories or enjoy books about people and their animal companions, then this is a must-read for you.  I happen to think it is an excellent pick for spring.  Read it outside where you can listen to the birds singing.

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