When critics and readers describe Karen Russell’s fiction as fantastic, they’re not just referring to Russell’s facility with language, her clever plotlines or her boundless imagination. Russell’s stories are surreal little gems—humorous, macabre and uniquely her own. Not necessarily fantasy, not exactly horror, not precisely magical realism, the eight short stories in her latest collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf, $25), practically beg to be read. Russell sets the bar so high that even an occasional misfire is still entertaining.
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is a perfect example of how Russell works. It’s the story of two vampires—Clyde, who is centuries old and can no longer shape-shift into a bat, and his young wife, Magreb—who live in Italy and depend on the local lemons to ease their thirst for blood. This isn’t a toothless take on Bram Stoker; it’s a thoroughly modern story about relationships and self-perception, about aging and surviving and commitments.
In “The New Veterans” a masseuse tries to help Derek, an Iraq War veteran with an elaborate back tattoo that tells the story of Arlo, a fallen comrade. Arlo’s death has literally gotten under Derek’s skin, causing intense pain. As the masseuse starts Derek’s treatment, she discovers special healing powers. “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” tells the bittersweet story of two brothers and the girl who comes between them, in the midst of an avian invasion.
“Reeling for the Empire” is downright creepy, a horror story about a silk merchant who drugs young Japanese women with a potion that turns them into silkworms. “Proving Up” places an 11-year-old boy in harm’s way as he delivers a glass window to a neighbor’s farm during a snowstorm. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” involves a gang of high school bullies who encounter a scarecrow that resembles a boy they used to terrorize.
There’s a special elegance to “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” where former U.S. presidents are reincarnated as horses and left to ponder their existence. On the other hand, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is gimmicky and predictable. There are no Food Chain Games, no Team Krill battling Team Whale. But if there was, these simple rules (“Make friends with your death,” “Tip the Russians well,” “Don’t fall overboard”) will help immensely.
At 31, Russell already has a stellar literary career. Her first collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) was critically acclaimed, and her debut novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was one of three finalists for last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, though no prize was awarded. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is another triumph; these are smart stories, beautifully told. ★★★★☆
Keep warm with “Book Jacket,” our cool-weather reading series by M. Scott Krause.
Selected by Jeanne Goodrich, executive director for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.
Stephen Hunter, one of my favorite thriller authors, has written one of the best of the seven “sniper series” with Dead Zero (Pocket Star, 2011). Bob Lee Swagger, a legendary Marine sniper, now over 60, is called back to help neutralize a rogue sniper, Ray Cruz. Mercenaries tried to kill Cruz in Afghanistan, but he escaped and vows to complete the task of assassinating an Afghan warlord. When Middle Eastern politics shift, the warlord becomes a political ally, and Swagger is enlisted to stop Cruz because he understands sniper psychology. Twists and turns abound. Of local interest: Drone pilots at Creech Air Force Base play a prominent role.