I'll warn you right now: Karen Russell's new short story collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," is not going to be for everyone.
But if you're kinda crazy about interesting, fresh writing that doesn't feel like something you've read before (and before and before), check it out:
Russell's first novel, "Swamplandia," got a ton of buzz when it was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the year that the judges elected not to name a winner. I wasn't all that nuts about the book; could see its appeal on some levels but ultimately its premise didn't hold my interest to the end.
For example, "The Barn at the End of Our Term" is built around the idea that a number of United States presidents have been reincarnated, if that's exactly the right word, as horses. They still have their human memories of their time at the top of the hill, and are able to communicate among themselves. But naturally the farmer and his young daughter who own the horses can't possibly know this.
Rutherford B. Hayes, who was the 19th president, 1877-1881, forms the centerpiece of the story. He fixates on the idea that a sheep in the pasture is his wife, Lucy (the first presidential spouse referred to as first lady). When "Lucy" is shorn of her wool, it's a bit like the blinders fall from Rutherford's eyes.
Most of the stories have substantial underpinnings of either fantasy, or in more cases, horror. In "Reeling for the Empire," adolescent girls in Japan are conscripted (essentially sold by their fathers) to work in silk-reeling factories, not knowing that the tea the agent shares with them will convert them into silk-producing caterpillars themselves. In "Proving Up," a young boy must carry a precious glass window across the prairie, littered with bones, through an unexpected blizzard. Are the people he encounters human...or horrors?
Russell's best stories are those that focus on the wild, hormonally charged adolescent years. "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis" puts a group of boys in a park in New Jersey where they discover a "scarecrow" bearing a curious resemblance to a boy they have teased and bullied mercilessly.
There's a significant dollop of humor in the stories as well. "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" pits Team Krill against Team Whale in the Food Chain Games and is darkly hilarious:
"So: how to get ready for the big game? Say farewell to your loved ones. Notarize your will. Transfer what money you've got into a trust for the kids. ... Eat a lot at Shoney's and Big Boy and say your prayers. Take an eight-month leave of absence, minimum, from your office job. Kill your plants, release your cat, stop your mail. It's time to hit the high seas."
The audio version of this collection is engagingly read by a team of narrators, each of whom brings his or her own distinctive style to the reading. For fans of electric modern fiction, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" is transcendent and magical.
AUDIO BOOK REVIEW
VAMPIRES IN THE LEMON GROVE: STORIES. By Karen Russell. Random House Audio, $28. Unabridged, 9 hours, 15 minutes. Narrated by Arthur Morey, Joy Osmanski, Kaleo Griffith, Mark Bramhall, Michael Bybee, Romy Rosemont and Robbie Daymond.