Vampires In the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

(Knopf, $24.95, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Karen Russell has a resume most writers would die for. She was named to The New Yorker’s list of the 20 best writers under the age of 40 and to Granta’s list of Best of Young American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation put her on its list of five best writers under the age of 35.  A native of Miami who now lives in Philadelphia, she won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, “Swamplandia! “(2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She also gives her books intriguing titles: besides “Vampires In the Lemon Grove” and “Swamplandia,” she published the story collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

What is this book about?

Russell’s stories are ostensibly about the ordinary world: a lonely teenager on a beach, a kid who suffers bullying, a war vet with an odd tattoo that mystifies his masseuse…but wait. There also are the creatures who give the book its title: two century-old vampires whose marriage is on the skids because one has developed a fear of flying…nothing mundane about that one. Nor is there anything ordinary about Japanese girls who exude strands of silk from their bodies or a group of former American presidents who now live in a barn because they have somehow been transmuted into horses. If all of this sounds too precious or odd, be reassured that in Russell’s gifted imagination, these whimsical premises are the solid underpinning of some very compelling fiction.

Why you’ll like it:

She’s very funny. She’s truly weird. She captures absurdity like a wily hunter and constructs fantasies that spring from the familiar world. She can scare her readers as well as entertain them. The eight stories in Russell’s latest collection are reinforcing her reputation for having a unique voice in contemporary fiction, albeit one influenced by writers as disparate as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, George Saunders and Carson McCullers.

What others are saying:

“…. Russell deftly combines elements of the weird and supernatural with acute psychological realism; elements of the gothic with dry, contemporary humor. …she has fashioned a quirky, textured voice that is thoroughly her own: by turns lyrical and funny, fantastical and meditative. “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” shows Ms. Russell more in control of her craft than ever…In these tales [she] combines careful research (into, say, a legend, a historical episode or a tradecraft) with minutely imagined details and a wonderfully vital sleight of hand to create narratives that possess both the resonance of myth and the immediacy of something new,” says Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.

“…”Vampires in the Lemon Grove” should cement [Russell's] reputation as one of the most remarkable fantasists writing today…Two of these tales are among the best and most chilling I’ve read in years…[the] exquisite precision and conflation of the commonplace with the marvelous is a hallmark of Russell’s prose style, infusing her work with a sense of the uncanny that keeps  a reader off balance right until the last sentence,” says The Washington Post .

Publishers Weekly says: “There are only eight stories in Russell’s new collection, but as readers of “Swamplandia!” know, Russell doesn’t work small. She’s a world builder, and the stranger the better. Not that she writes fantasy, exactly: the worlds she creates live within the one we know—but sometimes they operate by different rules. …. Russell’s great gift—along with her antic imagination—who else would give us a barn full of ex-presidents reincarnated as horses?—is her ability to create whole landscapes and lifetimes of strangeness within the confines of a short story.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “A consistently arresting, frequently stunning collection of eight stories. Though Russell enjoyed her breakthrough–both popular and critical–with her debut novel (“Swamplandia!,” 2011), she had earlier attracted notice with her short stories (“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” 2006). Here, she returns to that format with startling effect, reinforcing the uniqueness of her fiction, employing situations that are implausible, even outlandish, to illuminate the human condition. Or the vampire condition, as she does in the opening title story, where the ostensibly unthreatening narrator comes to term with immortality, love and loss, and his essential nature. … With the concluding “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” about a group of teenage bullies and an urban scarecrow, the fiction blurs all distinction between creative whimsy and moral imperative. Even more impressive than Russell’s critically acclaimed novel.”

When is it available?

“Vampires” can be found resting on the new book shelf of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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