ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Karen Russell's first novel, "Swamplandia," made a splash when it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Russell's latest book is a collection of short stories called "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Meg Wolitzer has this review.
MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: Karen Russell's writing is original. I know, you're thinking, oh, come on, Meg. Calling a writer original is like saying a book was 20 percent off at Barnes and Noble. But in this case, it's true.
In one story, a group of dead presidents are reincarnated as horses. One of them tries to talk to a girl by licking her palm in a secret code. He is Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the 19th president of the United States of America, he says. She should alert the local officials. But the girl just laughs. That tickles.
This is why I love Karen Russell. All the stories are premised on these really bizarre, complex ideas. It makes you wonder if other writers out there have this kind of imagination and they don't tap into it because they're afraid no one will know what they're talking about. Maybe she's just the only one who is brave enough not to worry about that.
In another story, two vampires are living in a lemon grove in Italy. They've realized that if they bite lemons, they get a little relief from their constant bloodlust, but it never really goes away. It's an existential thing.
Another theme that keeps coming up in this collection is the idea of transformation. People could change at any minute, and worse, they - or maybe we - could become disgusting or violent or embarrassing.
One story is called "Reeling for the Empire." It's about these girls who are trapped in a silk factory, and they start to turn into the silkworms. The "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" have to adapt over time in order to survive. In "The Barn at the End of Our Term" - which is the one about the dead presidents - even the most establish-y establishment figures aren't safe. They all have this kind of terrible helplessness.
And then there's my favorite story: "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis." It also has a transformation, but it's more subtle. It's about a group of boys who are bullies. Their prey is Eric Mutis, and the narrator explains that they beat him up in part because of his sneakers.
At school, we made a point of stealing Hoops from any kid stupid enough to wear them. Hoops were imitation Nikes, he says. The H logo was a flamboyant way to announce to your class: Hey, I'm poor. He disappears, and no one notices. Then the boys find a scarecrow tied to a tree, and they realize it looks just like Eric Mutis. But could it literally be him?
Karen Russell leaves a lot of ambiguity in her work, and it's not always easy to tell what the facts are. But what's clear in this story is the atmosphere: The boys are terrified, and the reader is, too, and that's the product of a skillful writer. In Karen Russell's collection, horses are presidents, vampires suck lemons and scarecrows are people. I finished it feeling transformed myself. I'm not a monster - at least not yet. But after reading this collection, I'm a fan.
SIEGEL: The short story collection is called "Vampires in the Lemon Grove," written by Karen Russell. Her newest fan is reviewer Meg Wolitzer. Wolitzer's next novel, out soon, is called "The Interestings." And for our younger listeners who love to read, a Backseat Bookclub reminder: Keep reading "Okay for Now," by Gary Schmidt, and then send in your comments or questions to email@example.com, and stay tuned for our conversation.