Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mondays on the Margins continued: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

This was my friend Lynn's comment on yesterday's post about Vampires in the Lemon Grove:

OMG, I READ THIS BOOK. It's quite major for me to be discovering I have read something, in the recent past, that other people are actually reading too! I AM RELEVANT.
That said...I did not love it. I really, really WANTED to love it. This is exactly my kind of author and my kind of writing. And I agree, the Antarctic story was divine.
But I think I have some sort of personal failing when it comes to short stories. I just always feel like I'm left wanting more. Like there was some deep and mysterious point I was supposed to get, but did not. I always feel left at loose ends, like there was no conclusion and then I wonder if I missed something, and then I feel dumb.
I especially did not like the last story, the one with the scarecrow. It was just so, so horrifying to me, the way they treated that boy and then were only punished in the vaguest of ways, and even then, only the one boy seemed to care. I just can't enjoy tales of callousness like that.
I am going to give Swamplandia a try (next year, when I get around to reading my Book Of The Year) because I am sure I will like that much better. In the meantime, I think short story collections are just not for me.
This is the thing about books. They hit everyone differently. And I think that we should drop the notion that if we don't like a book that a bunch of other people like it's because of a 'personal failing'. I used to feel this way about Alice Munro - as she goes, so goes my nation, and I would always feel like a slightly backwards dunce going "Um, I don't really get it". Then I realized that I actually love her early work, and some of her later stuff, but there are certain stories of hers that I just don't like - I feel like she's worked so much on not being plot-driven that they're not actually comprehensible without a whole lot of hard work, and I don't always want to work that hard to understand a story, and if I have to maybe it's the author's failing as much as mine.

(Although, whew, I'm glad Lynn liked the Antarctic Tailgating story).

I think overall I liked St. Lucy's slightly more than Vampires in the Lemon Grove - there were more stories that were marvelous. There are two stories that have no magical elements in them at all and I adored both of them: In The Star-Gazer's Log of Summertime Crime, a boy on an astronomy vacation with his father and sister runs into the school bully and gets swept up in a "Comical Ironical crime ring". The rendering of his appalled need to be liked by the charismatic sociopathic bastard while knowing everything they're doing is horribly wrong is painfully accurate. The crime is ring is rounded out by Marta, who happily calls herself the bully's bitch, and Petey, a mentally handicapped man. The boy says of Petey: "The worst part is, I know that no matter what crimes we do to Petey, he’ll always come back the following night. Being with Petey is like being with a dog, or a mother. There is nothing you can do to make him stop loving you." 

In Out to Sea, a group of seniors who live on boats are given adolescent delinquent "buddies". It goes badly, but none of them care, desperately wanting the company - by the end, they are leaving medication out in plain sight for the drug addicts, and lighter fluid for the arsonists. My favourite image: "His amputation gives Sawtooth a flamingular majesty. He rears up before her on his one remaining leg, feather-ruffled and pink with rage.”

In from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration, we're back in the American west, on an arduous journey from deprivation through hardship to possibility, except the young boy narrating the story has a father who happens to be a minotaur.  Again, it's the matter-of-factness with which Russell drops these elements into a story, and then how she deals with the natural consequences. A minotaur, on a westward migration? "…he is happier than I have ever seen him. People need my father out here. In town, there was always a distinct chill in the air whenever he took Ma to birthday parties or pumpkin tumbles, barbecues especially. But on the Trail, these same women regard him with a friendly terror. Their husbands solicit him with peace pipes, and obsequious requests:     ‘Mr. Minotaur, could you kindly open this jar of love apples for us? Mr. Minotaur, when you have a moment, would you mind goring these wolves?" 

Mr. Minotaur, would you mind goring these wolves? So polite! But he's a man with a BULL HEAD! How? What? It's just SO COOL!

*deep calming breath*

And then, my two very VERY favourite stories - Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Because the first one is about children who have sleep issues - normal ones like insomnia, teeth-grinding, sleepwalking and sleep apnea (hello!) and also Karen Russell ones like parasomnia with a co-incidence of spirit possession and being prophets of the past (dreaming all the tragedies of history) and the second one is about a school that reforms wolf-raised girls out of their four-legged snarling clawing ways in order to prepare them for polite society. BUT the first one is also about the loneliness and strangeness of adolescence, the intense friendships and shattering betrayals, and the second one is also about any daughter who finds herself having to mark out her own independence from parents with strongly-held values and traditions. But I feel like a douche even saying that, because it's like you don't even HAVE to say that, because the stories are perfect, like trees, or water, and it shouldn't even have to be said. And yet I can't seem to stop trying. 

From Disordered Dreamers: "Now Ogli and I are separated by one of the greatest rifts: campers who remember in the morning, and the ones who forget. I have never been the prophet of my own past before. It makes me wonder how the healthy dreamers can bear to sleep at all, if sleep means that you have to peer into that sinkhole by yourself. Oglivy really spoiled me. I had almost forgotten this occipital sorrow, the way you are so alone with the things you see in dreams."

From St Lucy's: "Our mothers and fathers were werewolves. They lived an outsider’s existence in caves at the edge of the forest, threatened by frost and pitchforks. They had been ostracized by the local farmers for eating their silled fruit pies and terrorizing the heifers. They had ostracized the local wolves by having sometimes-thumbs, and regrets, and human children. (Their condition skips a generation.) Our pack grew up in a green purgatory. We couldn’t keep up with the purebred wolves, but we never stopped crawling. We spoke a slab-tongued pidgin in the cave, inflected with frequent howls. Our parents wanted something better for us; they wanted us to get braces, use towels, be fully bilingual. When the nuns showed up, our parents couldn’t refuse their offer.”

And: "The nuns swept our hair back into high, bouffant hairstyles. This made us look more girlish and less inclined to eat people, the way that squirrels are saved from looking like rodents by their poofy tails."

And the heartbreaking: "DO YOU WANT TO BE SHUNNED BY BOTH SPECIES?"

Okay. I wanted to try to articulate what I loved about these stories. I don't feel like I succeeded, but I feel like I gave it a good go. 

4 comments:

Steph Lovelady said...

These all sound interesting.

I do love Alice Munro and this caused me to remember I had to return a really long Alice Munro anthology to the library before I could finish it, meaning to check it out again. Now I feel happy thinking I could go get it again.

Lynn said...

One time my book club (back when I still read books on occasion) chose to read The History Of Love. My friend Krista was the one who selected it, and she and I had both already read it and loved it to death.

Then, to my astonishment, the rest of the book club HATED it. They despised the mixture of magical elements, they hated the excerpts of the love book, they didn't like the characters. Krista and I were flabbergasted. (Also the book club broke up soon afterwards - TOTALLY UNRELATED.)

Although I swore just yesterday to give up on short stories, I have to say several of these sound really interesting. I should still probably read Swamplandia first - have you read it? But I will add this one to my ever-growing When I Retire reading list.

Sasha said...

Phew! Thank you! I can't explain it but somehow reading your review felt like running up the stairs. In a good way. Like there was something very very important at the top. I also just moved St. Lucy's into my top 10 to-reads (I keep doing that, which means something is getting bounced out but I don't know what and I'm afraid to look... and I never seem to follow the list anyways). My friend Robin just offered to loan me her copy, she hasn't read it yet and was looking for a review, will have to send her here.

Maria said...

I am not a Russell fan and I've always felt it is because I am missing some crucial intellectual piece. Like the big bang of my intellectual sphere doesn't extend to her kind of writing. Her writing doesn't hold me, it kind of fascinates me for a small while and then I start to drift off. But, almost everyone in my book circle thinks she hung the moon. I wish I knew how to capture that missing piece inside myself because I acknowledge that her writing is brilliant, it just doesn't leave me hungry for more. I have strange literary loves: Shakespeare and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Austen and Alice Hoffman. They all hold me and fascinate me and keep me hungry.