Short Story Long

When I had resolved to read 52 novels this year, I had no problem with the prospect of skipping non-fiction for a year. I had read some very good non-fiction last year (such as Michael Lewis' Moneyball) but I thought that it would be fun to restrict myself to the world of make-believe (although I guess you could have that in some non-fiction books, too).

Right off the bat I unintentionally kind of cheated by picking Mark Winegardener's Crooked River Burning as my first novel of the year. It was, I think, the first "historical novel" (a novel that mixes historic facts into it's story) that I've read since maybe the Crucible in high school (not that I read a lot of novels between high school and last year). Winegardener's book weaves the story of two people falling in love against the background of Cleveland history. That might not seem like the most interesting or romantic scenario, but Winegardener writes a very personal story interspersed with short narratives about Cleveland's famous and infamous citizens. That these historic sidebars are heavily footnoted add to their authenticity and make the fictional parts of the book seem more real.

So sticking to fiction is not a problem for me. No, the biggest dilemma I see my "novel-only" resolution creating is coming in October, when the Best American Short Stories series releases the 2004 issue. Before I started really liking novels, I really, really liked short stories, and this anthology is always fantastic. I was resigned to having to wait until I finished these 52 novels before picking up Best American Short Stories 2004.

Then I read novel number 45 in my mission to read 52 novels, Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo. This 440-page book reads like a extended short story. On top of that, it reads like a historical extended short story. Just like Crooked River Burning, it employs footnotes for the historical parts. Caramelo takes you through several generations of a Mexican family whose story shifts from Chicago to Mexico City to San Antonio and back to Mexico City and Chicago, with pit stops all over America and Mexico. Where Crooked uses its annotations only during its historical interludes, Caramelo uses them throughout the book to explain Mexican-American culture or offer mini-biographies of famous people who serendipitously end up in the family history.

More than any novel I've read this year, this book did not appear to be in any rush to get where it was going. It didn't seem to include any major plot points or work up to a major climax. I don't mean for that to be as critical as it sounds. It was simply the (pretty much true) history of a family. I think it was the breeziness and poetry in Cisneros' writing that gave the book the short story feel. But it was not a slight book. When I finished it and looked back on the story I realized that there were many major plot points in it, it's just that Cisneros didn't hit me over the head with them.

In Winegardener's Crooked River Burning, we have no reason to doubt what he is telling us about his protagonists is the true story. History is History. But with Caramelo, you know that family history is actually family storytelling, and there's no problem telling a "healthy lie" (as the narrator's father puts it) if it helps the story. These myths somehow help centuries of stories weave together seamlessly. Ironically, the only time the novel feels disjointed is when the story centers on the narrator, as she goes through puberty. But that is a short diversion and a minor objection.

So, how did I like the book? While I was reading it, I actually wasn't sure. It took me a relatively long time to get through the book. I think that was caused by the book's laid-back feel and its lack of the strong backbone of a gripping tale. I ended up reading a few pages at a time, with very little pushing me to want to read on and on. But after finishing the book I found that I did enjoy "cheating" and reading a short story, no matter how long it was, as a break from reading novels. The historic bits about Mexican-American history from the Mexican viewpoint were very interesting and the storytelling is on a personal scale and often very funny. But for this family's story to be considered a novel I think it would have to be more concrete. More propelled. Like many of the short stories I've read in anthologies like Best American Short Stories, this was a very interesting little story that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but after moving on becomes part of the collective "short stories" that I may not remember but makes me a fan of short stories.

Now I have started Maile Meloy's Liars and Saints, a very quick read. I had intended to read Mystic River, but my wife took it from me and now I have to wait for her to get through it (after seeing the movie, I don't imagine it's a light read).


At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you can officially add "vocabulary snob" to your profile.


At 1:29 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Hmmf. How utterly discourteous of you!

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Mark said...

By the way, what word pushed me over the edge? Was it "serendipitously"? It was "serendipitously" wasn't it? Damn 15-letter words.

At 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I knew the meaning of serendipitously, so there lol.


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