Karen Russell: Still Amazing

Hello, I finished book#30 of 2015 (ahh, I’m behind but also ahh, 30 still seems like a lot). It was my second ever Karen Russell book, except this one was a collection of 10 short stories instead of a novel. It was called St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and all of the stories were as strange and intriguing as that title is.

The 10 stories really shared nothing in common from one to the next, except that some of them took place in southern Florida, and some had brief reappearing characters (and I love when that happens.) All of the stories were effectively eerie and intense, which made them difficult to stop reading.

Sometimes I’m not sure how to talk about short stories. I don’t know if the author intends for them to be read and considered all together, consecutively, and in relation to one another, or by themselves, as individual stories.

Since I had a few favorite short stories out of the whole collection, I’m going to talk about them individually. My three absolute favorites were “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” “The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime,” and “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.” The common thread between these stories was the narrative voice being a pubescent boy, but they also all touched on innocent fun turning into potential chaos.

The first one (“Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers”) was a really beautiful idea. The story took place at a camp with cabins separated by various sleep disorders (the insomniacs in one cabin, night terrors in another, etc.). The camp had a small collection of 3 sheep, making the point of campers counting them to fall asleep kind of moot. One sheep ends up murdered in the night, and the narrator (Elijah) conducts a whodunnit steak out, only to find an answer he doesn’t really want, and to become a part of the murder in a really haunting way.

“The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime” runs along the same creepy lines as the first story. The main character, again, is a young boy who is heavily influenced by a bully/popular kid who is staying near his hotel one summer. Raffy, the bully, hatches a scheme to confuse newly-hatched sea turtles with a flashlight in order to trap them and keep them from going out to sea.

This one’s full of innocent humor and cheesy outer space-themed puns between the narrator and his family. But then the action escalates quickly toward the end and Ollie, the narrator, is trapped between doing something he knows is cruel but would make him cool and doing what’s right. The classic adolescent catch-22.

The third story again deals with the perspective of a young boy who faces the ultimate embarrassment of being let down by his father in front of another young boy. The setting of this story was absolutely terrifying: it was an adults-only, man-made snow globe called the Palace, and before the audience can participate in the frenzied ice skating session, they watch monkeys forced onto the ice in skates.

Everything about this story is unnatural and weird and overall uncomfortable, but there’s also a lot of dark humor and escalating tension and action toward the end, finishing off with a disturbing, too-calm ending.

All these short stories did have two things in common. The first was how well-written they were. Karen Russell is an amazing author, and has created some of the most beautiful metaphors and passages and phrases in these shorts stories that I’ve ever heard. I said this in my Swamplandia! post, but it still holds true: she still manages to create really beautiful, multi-dimensional characters, even in these limited 25-40 pages.

The second thing they all have in common was deep, original, unique imagination. One of these stories feature a Minotaur reproducing with a woman, another has girls raised by werewolves ready to be conditioned for society, there’s a boy choir that holds a concert from a helicopter in the sky with the finale of a song-induced avalanche. It goes on, but there is so much beautiful imagination in this collection.

Plus, this book was published when she was only 25. No one should be allowed to be this great at writing at only 25. I can’t wait to read everything she does next. ◊

When you are a kid, it’s hard to tell the innocuous secrets from the ones that will kill you if you keep them.”

– page 10, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”

“It makes me wonder how the healthy dreamers can bear to sleep at all, if sleep means you have to peer into that sinkhole by youself… I had almost forgotten this occipital sorrow, the way you are so alone with the things you see in dreams.”

– page 71, “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers”

“I guess that’s what growing up means, at least according to the publishing industry: phosphorescence fades to black and white, and facts cease to be fun.”

– page 81, “The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime”

“Up here I can’t untangle it, the word-strangle of it, the twisted umbilical that binds deep panic to sound.”

– page 218, “Accident Brief, Occurrence # 00 / 422”

*Sidenote: it was (obviously) very hard to narrow down just one quote to use… I wanted to quote everything I underlined but that would have been like half of the book. Everyone should just read it to experience the full glory of Russell’s writing.

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