Alright, it took me several months, but I finally finished THE COMPLETE STORIES of Flannery O'Connor. That's every published (and some unpublished) story that O'Connor wrote in her regrettably short life, all in chronological order, in a whopping 550-page trade-paperback-sized book (with a gorgeous cover, I must say).
I feel a glorious sense of accomplishment.
But if I feel great for finishing, I also feel quite challenged, because O'Connor's stories are not light stuff, by any estimation. Several stories end in gruesome, easily avoided but somehow fitting deaths, and most of the characters, while imagining themselves quite righteous and above the judgement of others, are royally selfish and irritating. Somehow, though, O'Connor draws out a bit of sympathy for these characters, all of whom are thoroughly developed and therefore very real and full of moments of weakness.
The best part of the entire book, though, is the fact that the stories get better and better--you can almost see her develop as a writer. While I loved the early stories (the first, "The Geranium," remains one of my favorites), I found myself drawn further and further into the stories as I went on, and the last ten (for the most part) were astonishing: particularly "Parker's Back" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge."
Set primarily in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, the stories touch on racism in a merciless sort of way--the tension between characters throughout the whole book is continual, erupting occasionally into stunning climaxes, and it creates an uneasy sense of foreboding in the reader that endures to the very finish of the book.
If you're less compulsive about finishing a book once started and reading everything in order than I am, this is still a wonderful book for flipping through and reading a story here and there. Each one is complete and troubling, while also ringing beautiful and true. You must, simply must, read at least one.