I have no idea how to review or even rate short story collections but I will start with breaking down individual stories and then go over broader themes I suppose and hopefully have collected a general feeling by the end. This will probably have spoilers since its hard to talk about short stories sometimes without context and in such short bursts the context is…most of it.
1. Plot: The first story follows a multi shifting perspective of a girl who gets kidnapped, a kidnapper, and the boy who is witness the drama unfold.
I struggled with this a little in audiobook format because of the stream of consciousness way of writing and the fact that the narrator did not distinguish between the different characters in the scene. I thought there was some really interesting themes here though that seemed to follow the ‘witness’ boy. He has very controlling parents to the point where his thought process on what to do about the kidnapping almost all revolve around his parents rules such as ‘no going outside while someone is in the nearby parking lot’ and ‘never wear socks on the porch’. The ending is super interesting to see what might happen when someone under those restraints breaks out of them. I have to wonder what George Saunders thinks about that Wife Swap murder, where a a kid with very strict parents murdered them and his brother. The similarities are….odd.
A man decorates a pole with various holiday and meaningful moments.
This almost made me cry and its like a minute long…I don’t know it just got me. A father can’t reach out to his children or get in touch with his emotions in any real way so does it through the presentation of a pole in the yard. For example, dressing it like the grim reaper after his wife dies and leaving childhood toys around it.
A woman wants to buy a puppy from another woman
Thoughts: ok so I probably should have re-listened to this one (I did for a few of these stories) but I didn’t want to because of TW ANIMAL ABUSE/DEATH. Just too sad and depressing.
A prisoner is experimented on using various drugs that effect emotions.
This was probably the most interesting story plot-wise. Obviously taking place in fiction but with realities such as prisoner exploitation and the corruption of science for the ‘greater good’.
A memo sent to employees telling them to just smile and do their job
Pretty applicable to current work environments, this is almost to close to reality to feel like satire
6. Plot: A rather unsuccessful man daydreams about a successful one
This plays into a lot of the same themes as the next short story and I took more notes on that one so I’m going to talk more there. This was humorous in a dark way.
in an attempt to keep up with his neighbors a man sinks a surprise windfall into….statue slaves?
ok so this one is kind of weird because…statue slaves? It seems like it could take place in the modern world for about half the story when randomly it drops that in so its kind of a whiplash of ‘wait whats happening?’ Anyways, that really doesn’t change the theme of the story just adds to it. Both this and the last story have representations of class jealousy and being willing to exploit those below or do bad things in order to move up in the classes. Both stories show characters looking down on others while they imagine their way up to the top. This story even has them normalizing this behavior to the kids and how its passed along again and again.
8. Plot: A court marshalled soldier comes home
Here is that loss of morality. I really liked an analogy that was made here of the character cleaning pools and killing tadpoles and convincing themselves that it was fine and ok when really they didn’t feel that way at all and how that felt the same while at war. However, I didn’t really connect with this story or like it that much.
9. Plot: A guy gets a promotion after catching his boss having an affair
I’m sure there is a theme here but I don’t really know. It was kind of funny though (but also sad! like all of these)
10. Plot: An old man with dementia attempts suicide
I suffered here too from the audio narrator not really distinguishing voices as this hops between two perspectives between a young boy and the old man. I liked the story but not sure I got a lot out of it.
Overall, this was a series of stories that really made me think and analyze what they were telling me. They were not necessarily enjoyable so I would not pick this up as a light and relaxing read but I liked the themes especially of morality in social class structures. The humor was present throughout. I appreciated the often stream of consciousness writing, as that often feels like how my thoughts work. Overall, I liked this collection but I am going to go read a YA fantasy book so I can relax now lol
I listened to this on audio through my local library. Narration by George Saunders himself (ugh yeah not all authors should read their audiobooks). I think I would actually recommend reading this instead of listening.