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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.



Filed under book review, books, fiction, literary fiction, short story collection

Spotlight on Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell



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!






Filed under books, fiction, literary fiction, short story collection

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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We Are All Drifting Houses

Drifting House by Krys Lee (Viking Adult; 224 pages; $25.95.)

             I typically do not read short story collections.  Novels are my book of choice for a variety of reasons.  I enjoy rich, memorable characters, ones who stay with me long after I finish a book.  I love a great setting, one in which I am transported to a different time and place so unlike my own and one in which I can lose myself.  Plot is also important to me, but it has to be plausible and interesting.  I detest badly written novels; thus, a book must have good prose to capture and sustain my attention.

Most short stories tend to lack that certain something I’m seeking in a book.  Short story collections should have the above elements I have previously described, but many simply do not.  In the hands of a mediocre writer, character development, plot, and setting can suffer due to the length of a short story.  Since most are about the length of a chapter, it can be difficult to produce a great short story, especially when page numbers are an issue.

It takes a skilled writer to come up with a great short story.  I am happy to say I found a short story collection that is nothing short of magical.  I found Krys Lee’s Drifting House.

The release of Drifting House is timely considering the December death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.  Lee’s stories matter and she cares deeply about her subjects. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee was raised in California and Washington.  She was awarded special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2012, was a finalist for Best New American Voices in 2006, and has published in The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, California Quarterly, and Asia Weekly.

Lee’s Drifting House is a powerful, intimate, and affecting debut collection.  She writes with elegance and grace as she takes us from Korea to the United States.  What struck me most in the stories were the Korean immigrants struggling to assimilate into American culture.  At times, Drifting House is difficult to read, not because the book is poorly written but because she brings the reader into the action and into the struggles of the characters.  The reader becomes a participant in the story and has an intense reaction to what goes on.  Never have I experienced such torment and such anguish as a reader.  This is deliberate.  Lee wants us to feel this way as she takes on themes such as family, love, abandonment, and loss.

In a story entitled “A Temporary Marriage,” a mother leaves Korea after being abandoned by her husband.  Not only did he leave her but he also kidnapped their daughter.  The mother immigrates to the United States and marries a man only so she can be close to her child.  The marriage is a sham but it serves her purpose.  My favorite story is the title story, “Drifting House,” in which a young boy must make a life or death decision as he leads his siblings to freedom.  The choice he makes haunts him and made me cry.

I had the opportunity to interview Lee and am very happy with the results.  I think you will be, too.  Lee and Drifting House deserve your attention.

Interview with Krys Lee,

Author of Drifting House


Jaime Boler: Thank you, Krys, for doing this interview.  I am very excited about Drifting House! Drifting House is a short story collection.  What made you want to write short stories?

Krys Lee: I started writing poetry long ago but found that the stories that were beginning to well up in me and wanted to be told no longer fit in a poem. That’s when I began considering another form. Stories appealed to me at the time because the shapes of what I was trying to write seemed appropriate for the length of a story.

JB: Did you always want to be an author?

KL: Yes. I’ve had my nose buried in a book since I can remember. All my books were smudged with toothpaste and stained with beef jerky because I read in nearly every waking moment. Books were an escape and respite from a fairly grim reality, and, like many who love to read, this desire traveled to writing itself. But I wrote primarily poetry until I began this collection.

JB: My favorite stories in your collection are the title story, “Drifting House,” and “The Goose Father.”  Do you have a favorite?

KL: My favorite story is probably “A Temporary Marriage.”  I felt so much sadness for Mrs. Shin and Mr. Rhee while writing it, and the story’s evolution surprised and shocked me. It was one of those moments when you realize how powerful the subconscious can be.

JB: What gave you the ideas for your stories?

KL: Each story was inspired by something personal, though they’re generally not autobiographical. I love South Korea, and I’m personally invested in its problems, which is evident in stories such as “The Salaryman” that arose after seeing a man I dated devoured by the Hyundai conglomerate. The story “Drifting House” also arose from my friendships with the activist and North Korean defector community in Seoul; the more you know, the more outraged you become at the tyranny of North Korea.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Drifting House?  And what would you say was the most rewarding?

KL: The most difficult part was facing my own lack of faith, but still returning to the writing. I told myself constantly that I wouldn’t be able to sell Drifting House but quitting was like carrying a baby in the womb but not undergoing labor. It was my baby, and I was going to give birth to it. The most rewarding and difficult aspect of writing is seeing more of yourself in the work than you’d ever wished to expose—all my obsessions, fears, and wounds arose in the stories, though I’d persisted in avoiding directly autobiographical stories. But to create from the personal something larger than the self was a process I value, and I’m grateful for the experience.

JB: When did you begin working on Drifting House?

KL: My first story began over five years before Drifting House was bought at auction, but that doesn’t mean I was writing for those entire five years. I took several months off at the time from the book, both for personal reasons as well as out of a fear of commitment. I was afraid of failure, a fear that many writers experience when starting out.

JB: What is your favorite book?  Which authors do you consider your favorites?

KL: The list is exhaustive, but a few constants are The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; Beloved by Toni Morrison; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, W.S.Merwin, and John Ashberry; The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov; the plays of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, Martin McDonagh, and Martin Crimp, and the short stories of Charles D’Ambrosio and Lorrie Moore.

JB: Please tell me a little about your writing style.  Do you write in long-hand first or do you simply go to your computer or laptop and begin writing?  Do you go somewhere in particular to write?  Do you listen to music or do you prefer silence?

KL: I write anywhere it happens for me, from a campground, a subway, to a library. I’m a restless person, so as long as I’m writing most days of the week, I accept my irregular patterns rather than fight them. Depending on the scene I’m working on, music or silence will accompany my writing.

JB: If you were not writing, what would you most likely be doing?

KL: I’d be a human rights activist or a park ranger. Activists inspire me for acting on what they believe is right, and for their courage and sacrifice. A park ranger is attractive to me because I like the unpretentious nature and daily beauty and drudgery of their lives. There’s a restlessness for meaning that keeps my mind moving, and both professions, in different ways, is a search for meaning.

JB: Time plays a significant role throughout your stories.  Can you tell us about that?

KL: I’m obsessed with time. My parents died young, so time has haunted me since I was in my early twenties. I questioned what it meant to live on this earth, and what actually mattered to me in my finite amount of time here. Historical time and geographical time also interest me tremendously, as I’m but a moment on this planet.

JB: Things that really stood out for me while reading your stories were identity, home, and the immigrant experience.  What do you want readers to take with them after reading Drifting House?

KL: My characters happen to be of Korean ethnicity because I understand that culture best, but their stories are universal. I think of all of us as a kind of drifting house, especially readers and writers. The force of society and our personal circumstances acts on all of us in different ways, and people are never quite at ease with their surroundings as they seem. Like my characters in “The Goose Father” or “A Small Sorrow”, in the end, we all seek a place of belonging.

JB: One thing that captured my attention in your stories was the acts of violence in almost every one. What made you use this in your storytelling?

KL: Violence shaped the person I am, and it has clearly affected my sensibility. I thought this was in my past, but the past becomes a part of you and I carried that violence into my fiction, to my surprise. But as Harriett Gilbert from BBC’s The Strand noted, my aesthetic is informed by humor, fantasy, and violence. Darkness is balanced by light, just as in life.

JB: When will your book be released?  Will there be a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

KL: Drifting House will be released on Feb 2, 2012. The book tour will take me to New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and literary festivals in Tempe, Arizona, and Dallas. There will also be an additional event in Honolulu, which will be fun.

JB: What was it like when you saw the cover of your book for the first time?

KL: I realized how lucky I was to have a publishing team that worked so hard on my behalf. My experience with Viking/Penguin has been collaborative, from the editing to the selection of the front cover, thanks to a group of editors, publicists, and designers who love reading as much as I do. The excitement and the faith of this enormous publishing house for a story collection—reportedly an uncommon phenomenon these days—culminated in the moment I received a finished copy of Drifting House.

JB: What’s next for Krys Lee?  Is there a novel in your future?

KL: I actually finished a novel draft last year and am in the middle of revisions. The novel as a form gives you a lot of room to explore, which I’ve enjoyed. Hopefully, you’ll be seeing it soon!

JB: Thank you, Krys, for doing this interview.  I am very excited about Drifting House, and I know readers will be, too.

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