Two collections

by Jess

I picked up Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove recently and tore through them both.

Everything Ravaged is everything I love about a short story collection. Every story was strong — in prose, in characterization, and in story. Tower is a remarkable writer. Most of his stories are about male protagonists, but even the teenage girl who headlines the story ‘Wild America’ is pitch perfect. Hell, I can’t even write a teenage girl as well as he does.  Slate and the NY Times both have highly complimentary reviews of the book. The Daily Beasts review claims these are short stories for men, but Bookslut offers some more nuanced insight. I love Edmund White’s words in the Times review:

Every one of the stories in “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is polished and distinctive. Though he’s intrigued by the painful experiences of men much older than he is, Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell-­raising, skull-bashing ancient Vikings and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century, even about a cheerful, insouciant pedophile. His range is wide and his language impeccable, never strained or fussy. His grasp of human psychology is fresh and un-Freudianizing.

He also compares Tower to Lorrie Moore, which is one I did not think of when I was reading but I see it clearly now. Moore is one of my favorite writers of all time, so that about sums up my feelings on Wells Tower. (Plus, come on, his name is Wells Tower. That’s a freaking kick ass name.)

I think one of the things I liked most about the stories was their range. To go from “Door in Your Eye” (wherein “an old man is laid up in his daughter’s house without much to do. He passes the time painting watercolors of the weather into his diary, dreaming of his youth, and watching johns go in and out of a prostitute’s shabby house across the street”) to “On the Show” (“perhaps the most pitiless story of the collection, … structured around the search for a child molester at a traveling carnival. What is terrifying is … that at one point or another every single man in the story appears guilty. We watch as first one character, and then another, wanders away at a suspicious moment, or admires a striking young boy. They are not the culprit, we learn, but they are not untouched by the impulses that move him, and there are dark places in all our hearts.) to the title story (“a George Saunders-esque tale of marauding Vikings, several of whom, cutely, have tired of rape and plunder”) is to watch a master at work. Tower is a virtuoso of the form, which, coincidentally enough, is from the Latin virtus, meaning virtue, excellence, skill, or manliness.

Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove was a different story for me. It’s very good as a whole, but the individual stories seemed a bit uneven. Danny Nowell’s review in The Oxford American describes her prose as “sturdy,” which is about as lovely a compliment to one’s writing as it would be about one’s girlish figure. Some of my favorite stories in the collection, like “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” reminded me of Kelly Link’s work in Stranger Things Happen, while others like “Reeling for the Empire” put me in mind of Haruki Murakami, whom I’ve never been able to love. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” was a standout for me because it was so very different from everything else. I was grateful that Nowell shared my feelings on some of the frustrating endings to her stories, which “struggled to strike the balance between satisfying and unexpected resolutions.” But then, my own writing is the same way.

I’m still interested in reading more of Russell’s work, but I think I’d like to try her novel Swamplandia!, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, though no award was given out that year at all (dumb). And if Tower writes another book, well, go ahead and put me on the waiting list now.

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