This year, one of my personal goals was to read three poetry collections and three short story collections. This was definitely a challenge for me, as these are both forms that I'm trying to learn to appreciate. I'll save the poetry for a later discussion, because it's the stories that are forefront on my mind right now.
In my mind, the purpose of the short story is to make the reader respond in some way. The first two collections I read did an okay job at that, (The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor suffered only in that there were an incredible number of stories and it took me years to complete. Youth and the Bright Medusa by Willa Cather was good, but wasn't as magical for me as O Pioneers! or Song of the Lark) but they didn't really change my perspective about short stories. They were [mostly] good, interesting, stories, but (with a few exceptions) left me feeling like they weren't complete somehow. They ended too abruptly perhaps, or seemed too formulaic, or maybe I was never fully invested in the story to begin with.
In any case, these problems vanished when I began reading short stories to prepare for my son's high school English course. I chose Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto because my son is infatuated with Japanese culture (and I thought Haruki Murakami might be too slow for him at this point) and Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson because I loved The Family Fang and thought it might be just the right sort of quirky. Turns out, I really enjoyed both of these collections. Where the two collections I read earlier this year suffered from too many similar stories, these did not. They felt fresh throughout, and kept me wanting to read more. None of the stories felt too long. In fact, most of them had me wishing that they were longer. (As Jane Austen said, "but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.")
From what I understand, both of these authors were in their early 20s when they wrote these stories, which explains the What Do I Do With My Life vibe that runs throughout both collections. It happens to be perfect for what my goal is, but I found them enjoyable even apart from that.
Lizard has a distinct Japanese flavor, which makes observing that transition to adulthood all the more interesting. The stories are high interest and easy to read, but at the same time they dig deep into themes of hurt, memory, love and loss, with growing as a person and figuring out who you are and why. It isn't just all surface action, the characters make you think and feel.
Kevin Wilson has a quirky writing style that might not work for everyone, but seems to work quite well for me. Where Aimee Bender's (and Jonathan Safran Foer's) magical realism is too off-the-wall to really engage me, Wilson's surreal realism (is that even a thing?) hits me just right. These stories often start off with an attention grabber: "First of all, we were never tunneling to the center of the earth. I mean, we're not stupid." Or: "It took me damn near a week to convince Sue-Bee to come watch this guy shoot himself in the face." The themes revolve around loneliness and family and love - things that you'll recognize if you've read The Family Fang.
Not only did I find success in my attempt to gather required reading for my 11th grade son (he'll be reading Blood & Water from Yoshimoto and the title story from Wilson) but I enjoyed myself along the way. Perhaps my short-story-ennui had more to do with finding the right balance of authors than anything else. I'm not confident I'll be able to say the same thing about poetry, but I'm not giving up hope yet.