Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Author: Karen Russell
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Date of Publication: February 12, 2013
Pages: 256

      Vampires in the Lemon Grove is an eclectic eight story collection from Karen Russell, author of one previous critically acclaimed collection (St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves) and one novel, Swamplandia (neither of which have I read).  These stories were all previously published in literary journals such as “Granta” and “Tin House.”  All eight stories are tremendously creative and inventive.  Sparkling prose is present throughout the entire volume.  I’m not a great fan of fantasy or science fiction (these stories aren’t really either, but there’s probably not a niche for them to be classified in).   However, even if I didn’t particularly care for one of the stories, there were at least several sentences in each which were so wonderful that they made reading the story very worthwhile.
     Vampires in the Lemon Grove  is a beautifully told strange tale of an old vampire who has lost his ability to morph into a bat.  He has a human-like relationship with another vampire until he comes out of "retirement".  This is a lyrical story which I guess stands as an allegory for long term love relationships.  A noteworthy snippet:  

"Often I wonder to what extent a mortal's love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I'll never quite understand.  And lately I've been having a terrible thought: Our love affair will end before the world does."  

     Reeling for the Empire is one I didn’t really care for.  It is a futuristic description of Japanese girls taken from their families and fed a moth which essentially turns the girls into silkworms.  I suppose this is a statement of sorts regarding slavery or indentured servitude.  Also, the main character (one of the enslaved girls) regrets her decision to volunteer for this service, making this a story of second guessing life's choices.  Again there are pearls of prose to be savored:   

"Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.  It's become my sanctuary..."

"O even the nausea of regret can be converted to use."

      The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979 reminded me just a little bit of Poe’s The Raven in that a seagull plays a prominent symbolic role much like Poe’s bird.  Russell’s gull is able to bring objects from the future into a nest which the main character uses to shape his actions.  This character at first sees the gull which follows him as his conscience, then as an omen.  Proving Up tells the story of homesteaders in the late 1800s sharing a glass window which is a requirement for transfer of ownership of the land from the government at the time of inspection.  It is one of the longer stories in the collection and seems to change focus from a story of grim pioneer determination to one of survival.  Several great sentences from this story:

"In summer, this room can get as hot as the held breath of the world."

 "My mother is thirty-one years old, but the land out here paints old age onto her."

     The Barn at the End of Our Term was my favorite of the eight stories because of its audacious premise and because it made me laugh.  It is a very imaginative story where half of the horses in a barn are re-incarnated former United States presidents.  They range from Rutherford B. Hayes to Dwight Eisenhower.  One day James Garfield escapes.  Hayes tries to identify his wife Lucy ("The first first lady") in all of the other animals at the farm and he becomes quite enamored with a duck.  A quote from this story:

"The presidents spend a lot of time talking about where the other citizens of the Union might have ended up.  Wilson thinks the suffragettes probably came back as kicky rabbits."

     Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating is an extremely odd account of "The Food Chain Games" and the dos and don'ts of tailgating in the Antarctic.  This one made me think of The Hunger Games in its imaginative scope, although the thrust of the story is different.  A few gems from this story:

"Antarctic tailgaters know exactly how hard it is to party." 

"If you're a health nut, don't tailgate in the antarctic.  You can always put balsamic vinaigrette on salted meat and sort of pretend it's a salad."

     The New Veterans was another favorite.  The main character is a middle-aged female massage therapist.  She becomes part of a program which treats young Iraqi war veterans.  Her first patient has a huge tattoo on his back depicting a Humvee attack which killed a comrade in arms.  The massage therapist confronts her own survivor guilt issues (her mother died young of cancer) as she helps relieve the soldier's. 

"In truth, Beverly can never quite adjust to her age on the calendar;  most days, she still feels like an old child."

     The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis is a funky take on bullying and its effects on the perpetrators as well as the victims.  It takes a supernatural-Stephen King like twist of plot early on from which it never escapes.  Sparkling writing again is on display here:

"The central acres of Friendship Park were filled with pines and spruce and squirrels that chittered some charming bullshit at you, up on their hind legs begging for a handout.  They lived in the trash cans and had the wide-eyed, innocent look and trheadbare fur of child junies.  Had they wised up, our squirrels might have mugged us and used our wallets tu buy train tickts to the national park an hour north of Anthem's depressed downtown."

"As the son, I got to be on a first-name basis with allo these adult men, all her boyfriends, but I never knew them well enough to hate them in a personal way."

     All in all, this was a very entertaining (albeit somewhat fanciful and at times bizarre) collection.  It is well worth reading if only just to immerse yourself in splendid writing.  I own a copy of Swamplandia, so it may need to be elevated in the “to read” list.


  1. Great review, Tom. I've seen this at the bookstore, even picked it up and read a bit but for some reason it didn't click with me at that moment. Maybe I should give it another try.

    1. Thanks for reading the review! These stories are pretty different from what I usually read, but I enjoyed them and appreciated the quality of the writing!