Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
Flannery O'Connor's short stories are fascinating the way looking at a household insect in a magnifying class is fascinating -- suddenly, a familiar, innocuous part of the world becomes a writhing grotesquery. Except, here, the object of examination is human self-importance, within the context of the American South circa 1960. If you've ever taken a creative writing class, you've probably read at least one of these stories. Fifty years after being written, they're still textbook examples of how to use flawed characters to reveal the absurdity of human attitudes. O'Connor sets her characters against some obstacle or antagonist, then dispassionately observes them as they drive themselves to their own ruin, usually with some final moment of epiphany.
It would be bleak stuff if it weren't so enthralling, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. There's the story of a young man who bristles at his mother's unthinking racism, yet whose own enlightenment rings false. There's a self-righteous father who neglects his disappointing son in order to "save" a delinquent teenage boy, whose feral cunning more than matches him. There's a self-satisfied middle-aged woman who can't understand why she attracts the ire of a college girl in a doctor's waiting room -- after all, she's the "right sort of person", not like that poor white trash family a few seats over.
My favorite in the collection deals with the dark comedy that results when the mother of a bookish 30-something hermit who still lives at home takes pity on and naively decides to rescue a very troubled young woman, much to her son's annoyance. Since I sometimes loan books I've finished to my own mother, I had a laugh at the thought of sharing that one. Not that I live with my mom or she often brings home tragic 19-year-old girls with nymphomaniac tendencies (alas).
There are a few other reasons O'Connor remains a staple of writing classes. She's great with language, voice, and nuanced observations of human behavior, and at using foreshadowing and meaningful imagery. She works in major social issues (e.g. race) and religious themes (e.g. suffering, epiphany), but doesn't hit the reader over the head with them.
If you enjoy stories that are dark, unsparing, and grotesque, but also humorous, compassionate, and deeply honest, consider this collection. Reading up on O'Connor's life, which came to an early end from illness, it wasn't hard for me to see how some of her own personal trials must have informed her work. The brilliance of these stories still shines, and her influence is visible in later writers who have picked up on her methods (e.g. Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud).
The audiobook production is pretty good. Some readers are better than others (one guy's voices sound like characters from South Park!), but I think you really need to have those thick southern accents in your head to fully appreciate the writing, so consider a listen.
Maile Meloy’s stories, mostly set in Montana, are studies of people caught between conflicting desires or in unsustainable moments. The plots are pretty minimalist, focused less on “what happens” than on what goes on in the minds of the protagonists. A shy young man is drawn to a teacher whose long commute makes romance effectively impossible. A man antagonized by his adult younger brother on a ski vacation discovers that peace between them may require conflict. A girl develops an attraction to the son of her mother’s boyfriend, even as it becomes clear that the boyfriend isn’t a keeper, which raises questions about what we learn from our parents about relationships. A woman must comfort her friend, who has guessed that her husband is cheating on her, but not that the protagonist is the other woman -- and what happens when the husband comes in the door? In the most chilling piece, a man confronts the girlfriend of the teenager who raped and murdered his daughter, and learns something he might have been better off not knowing.
For the most part, these are stories where Meloy constructs some finely-balanced tensions, then leaves the reader at the tipping point, to contemplate what must happen next, or at least the implications of what must be realized. I wouldn’t have minded a little more variety to the themes (many are about infidelity, jealousy, and selfishness), but Meloy is a skilled writer, insinuating the charged emotions of a moment with just a few words, then leaving the fuse to burn down in the reader’s mind. Those who appreciate finely-tuned short fiction that eschews stylistic flourishes will probably enjoy this compact collection.
In my mind, Kurt Vonnegut is the writerly equivalent to an eccentric, sarcastic, but kindly old uncle, the one you can always count on to take the stuffing out of your more puffed-up, less agile-minded relatives at family Christmas parties, while giving you a sly wink. In an important way, he was a voice for America in the 1950s and 60s, both a counterpoint to and a commenter on "mainstream" attitudes. He could do zaniness, anger, sorrow, and gentleness equally well.
This collection is a fine intro to what made the man great. A few stories fall a little flat, and a few feel dated, but most still resonate in one way or another. In style, they range from memoir to science fiction to allegory to absurd satire to"straight" fiction, which make them interesting as a prismatic breakdown of the eccentric, eclectic voice Vonnegut uses in his longer works. My own favorite story was a poignant piece about a half-black German orphan who encounters a unit of black American GIs in post-WWII Europe, and the friendship he forms with a particular soldier.