Perhaps my favorite was the simple early story in the collection "My First Goose" in which the narrator kills a goose so that the soldiers he's accompanying will see him as one of them, a plan that works, but he sleeps that night "with the crimson hands of a murderer." To me it sets the tone for the rest of the stories and gets to the heart of the underlying question: why is this thinking Jewish guy palling around with Cossacks who slaughter his people, and at what personal price? I felt that the stories, even the simple two paragraph ones, had a wonderful tension between his intellectual, philosophical side and the battle-lust and admiration for his fellow warriors he reveals at the end of "Kombrig 2" when he sees the general riding by after a big, presumably bloody victory and just thinks it’s marvelous. This is also mirrored by the juxtaposition of his short descriptions of nature which are lush and reverent and the carnage that either precedes or follows such descriptions.
I'll admit that I also spent a chunk of time--this is the journalist in me--reading about Babel's life and work, which have a lot of interest for me since all eight of my great-grandparents were Russian/Polish/Lithuanian Jews who emigrated here in part because of the Cossacks. Babel's biography struck me as being very mysterious and elliptical, rather like his stories-you began to get the sense of a man who intentionally blurred his real and fictional identities and created a persona for himself somewhere in between embracing and rejecting his heritage.
Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
Re-reading the title story produced a strong, almost visceral recollection of the first time I read it, in high school English of course. I didn't remember it as I began re-reading it, and then when I saw the word "Misfit" it all came back to me. These stories are so effectively disturbing and difficult to remove from one's mind. It’s really a wonderful example of an author “going there”—being brutal and merciless in a beautiful way. The images she creates are quite unforgettable: the dead grandfather sitting on stage with his eyes and mouth open, the mentally-disturbed daughter being left in the diner on her wedding day by the husband who has patiently wooed her so he can get her car, the Catholic schoolgirls whispering in the dark overheard by their creepily precocious young cousin. I loved “A Stroke of Good Fortune” because it had this great demonic pregnancy subtext and the vividness of the protagonist's struggle to get up and down the stair to her apartment was so complete and portentous—you could hear the stairs creaking, see the nosy neighbors, feel the wheezing breath and swollen ankles.
The one mistake I made was being overly curious and then going online and reading too much about the religious subtext of the stories. Because I'm a bitter atheist I found myself getting a bit mad at poor Flannery, who was so, so brilliant but very religiously warped.