The Week in Books

I’ve never been much for short story anthologies, but this past month has proved an exception, mostly because I borrowed a ton of books from my friend Ben.

I finished Vampires in the Lemon Grove, an anthology of short stories by Swamplandia! author Karen Russell. I wasn’t that impressed by Swamplandia!, so it was very rewarding to read Karen Russell’s short stories. Always imaginative, the stories in Vampires range from the haunting, to the insightful, to the soulful, to the downright disturbing. Some of the stories definitely left me cold, like a story about the Frontier which is implied is populated by ghosts. Too much suspense, not enough pay-off.

I’m also reading The Islanders by Christopher Priest, a “travel gazetteer” that aims to catalog the many islands in the Dream Archipelago, a continent of islands that even the book seems to pose is magical. There’s a short “chapter” describing each island, but although many of them include features of the geography and culture of the islands, many are also first-person narratives. Eventually (I’m up to page 140), the stories begin to interconnect, and stories that were told before are expanded and seen in a different light with more context (that seems almost like a mixed metaphor). But even the stories that don’t necessarily interconnect are at times interesting, moving, or hilarious–I especially liked an early description of a beautiful island filled with poisonous bugs: the industries that operate there say that the bugs are now gone, but you’ve still got to have incredibly good insurance if you want to work there.

Ben also lent me At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. One story in, it seems very similar to Vampires: blending a little bit of magical realism with poignant human stories.

There’s a reason why I’m cycling through all of these at the same time. Short stories, especially these, tend to be a lot more intense than others, and I not only need, but want a little bit of time to digest the stories. That’s not true of all short story collections–with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, for example (one of my favorite books, period), I immediately wanted to read more and more and more of her prose. Another example is Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger, where I am so luke-warm on the stories that I want to take a pause just because the story itself was underwhelming. (I just remembered that I’m also about halfway through that book).

Also, I’ll eventually return to The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño, but it’s just as meandering as 2666 without, in my opinion, characters or themes that are as interesting. I’m just not that interested in self-important poets. I also hope to finish Shadow Country at some point in my life, although it’s just as epically long as 2666.

Hopefully, I’ll get through all of the books I’ve borrowed from Ben  before I’m tempted to buy books at the airport.

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