Unfortunately I went into this book with a significant bias against it, and mixed feelings on the author. I loved Karen Russell’s newer short story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” and absolutely hated her novel “Swamplandia.” The bias against this book is that the author was 25 when she wrote it, 25! And these stories were published in the New Yorker, Zeotrope, Granta, and other ultra high end literary outlets. I’m 30 years old and I’m still eagerly waiting to her back from snobby online magazines that no-one has ever heard of, and expecting to be rejected (if any of you happen to be reading this, then prove me wrong and accept my manuscript). So when you look at it like that, the stories better be of the absolute highest quality. So with that being said, here’s what I thought:
Ava Wrestles the Alligators – I actually skipped this one because I believed it to be related to “Swamplandia.” I don’t know what part of Swamplandia, admittedly not every part of the novel was entirely bad, but I’m not about to reread any part of it.
Haunting Olivia – I also skipped this one because of its potential connection to “Swamplandia,” however I am less certain of this story then of the first one. That being said, if it is the part of Swamplandia that I think it is, then I am very glad to have skipped it, because that was one of the most irritating and tedious parts of the novel.
Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers – the first actual story from the collection that I read, and a pretty good one. A good example of Russell’s magical realism. I can see where this story might be creative starting point for Russell’s newest novella “Sleep Donation.” I’ve always enjoyed storied about sleep, dreams, and the thin world between sleep and awake, and this story did a good (but not quite great) job at this. Also I came across a new word while reading this story: “Somniloquist” which means talking in your sleep, but even word doesn’t recognize it.
The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime – I stopped reading this story about half way through. First off, I don’t enjoy stories about generally good kids knowingly making bad decisions. It’s a theme that bugs the hell out of me, but luckily I don’t come across it too often. The only other story with this theme that I can come up with off the top of my head, is a story by Danielle Evans that appeared in the 2008 edition of Best American Short Stories.
from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration – this is my favorite story from the collection. It tells the story of a Minotaur who decides to hitch himself to a wagon and pull his family across the Oregon Trail. Note the way that in the title “from” is both not capitalized and italicized. Also the way the story starts and ends at unnatural points gives the impression that this may have been taken from a longer piece, and if it was, I would like to read that piece. The story does a great job of illustrating life on the trail, the difficulties, and how these difficulties affect the small traveling community and the marriage of the Minotaur and his wife. Judging by the way the story was going at the end of the text, I don’t expect the bigger piece to have a very happy ending. This is beautiful and hard magic realism.
Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows – I didn’t much care for this story either, it’s more grounded in reality then certainly the last story, and the others I tend to enjoy by Russell. The story is about a young boy, teenage boy, who goes to an adult’s night at the ice skating rink. While there, there is a blinding blizzard, created mechanically and intentionally, so the adults could have a sense of anonymity among each other and use this as a sort of mask and excuse for playing with each other. The story is written from a youth’s perspective where he does not fully understand what is going on. This is another problem with a lot of the stories in this collection: Young Male Protagonists. Karen Russell is young (especially when writing this book), but she is not male, obviously, and has difficulty in writing from such a point of view. Her male protagonists fall short of being believable and relatable. I give her respect for attempting to write something out of what could be considered her comfort zone, but this is a story collection, experiment with some, and then do what you’re good and/or better at with the others. Of the six and a half stories I read, only two have female protagonists, and one of those was written in the third person and almost equally about a male and a female character.
The City of Shells – of the six and a half stories I read in this book, this was the only one written in the third person. It’s about a plus sized teenage girl who goes by the nickname “Big Read.” While one a fieldtrip to some sort of giant seashell garden, she breaks away from the group and ends up going inside one of the shells, where she gets stuck. The janitor finds her and tries to get her out, but he too gets stuck. It’s difficult to imagine the seashells she describes, and there could have been some work done on this effort. I get the feeling that this story is about a lot more than just the above description, and could easily be open to interpretation. That’s why this story is one of the better ones in the book.
Out to Sea – this is another one that I skipped because of its connection to Swamplandia. Out to Sea is the name of the retirement home in which Grampa Sawtooth (another irritating character from the novel) resides. I should mention that I read this book (St. Lucy’s not Swamplandia) by paper. Had there been an audio book version, I probably would not have skipped so many of these stories. But since I am a very slow reader, I’m not going to force myself to read through something I already know and already know I’m not going to enjoy.
Accident Brief, Occurrence # 00/422 – this story suffers from one major problem… where the hell is it located. Normally that wouldn’t be too big of a problem, but there is a heavy use of foreign names, tribes, towns, places, etc. the story takes place at a glacier where a group of singers are trying to cause an avalanche, okay so maybe it’s in Alaska. Then you see a reference to a tropical fruit farm and pirates and you think, okay, maybe Hawaii. Then you see references to a reindeer farm and a baby bear and think… then you look up the Moa and realize it’s a made up word, as is the name of the glacier, and every other name in the story, and you’re so busy trying to figure out how to place this story that you’ve ignored what’s gone on, and by the end of the story your too pissed off to care.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – the last and title story of the collection, and also one of the better ones (Unlike Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which was the title but worst story of that collection). The title is not a metaphor or anything, but a literal representation of the story. Children of werewolves are given to or abducted by a church and taught how to act like humans. The story is surrealist and brutally raw, and also kind of sad, as one of the girls, has a very difficult time trying to adapt. I have a feeling that the third story collection (which I can’t wait for) will also have a title with some magical realism treatment on an archetypal monster story, but I don’t know what it will be.
Review – although the collection is not without a few gems, it is largely mediocre. There were 4 really good stories in the collection, three that shouldn’t have been there because they were part of another book, and three really not good ones. Perhaps she should have held off, and put those four good ones in Vampires, but, what can you do.