Posted on December 2, 2022
I have a set of bookmarks with a heading that says “Books I’ve Read!” There are ten slots for books to be read throughout the time that the reader has the bookmark. I got the set two years ago and have probably completed three or four of them. The most recent bookmark says that I’ve completed a novel from my structure of fiction class, but the thing is, we’ve read two or three novels since then.
This is an ambitious way to keep track of books I’ve consumed. But it’s one thing to have cute bookmarks that chart your readerly progress, and another thing to do the actual reading. I’ve worked a lot over the past couple years. With stints in different countries and states. I remember, when I went to the Peace Corps, that I brought hefty tomes focusing on military nonfiction and U.S. foreign policy. When I was in City Year New Hampshire, I had purchased many issues of different literary magazines, including swamp pink (then under its previous name), Copper Nickel, and Bennington Review. I read these magazines because I made an intentional change in the works I read in order to tailor my work to be more acceptable to graduate-level writing programs. That must have worked since I’m currently enrolled in one! Starting last year and continuing to now, however, I’ve been trying to adjust my readerly palette to feature more of that type of writing, but ones that intentionally feature people and places that I can draw similarity from—that is to say, works by writers who look like me and write about experiences that I can echo in my own life.
So what follows is a selection of novels and collections on my bookshelf that have meant a lot to me over the past year.
Woman Hollering Creek – Sandra Cisneros
This is a collection I come back to often. Cisneros’s first story collection and fourth published work overall, it came after two poetry collections, Bad Boys and My Wicked, Wicked Ways, as well as the novel House on Mango Street. It’s a natural successor to House on Mango Street that catapults that work’s themes from a micro focus into a macro-observation.
The collection is spread across three parts, all with their own unique narrative perspectives. Each section shares a heading title with that of a story within. The first “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn,” covers stories of childhood, where young girls grow up and first learn the inklings of what it means to love—from platonic, to familial, to romantic. The stories here are brief, with some barely lasting a page, but they speak to harsh economic conditions the young people live in, and how they see an escape in the entertainment they consume, and the cultural values the adults in their lives live by.
The second section, “One Holy Night,” includes only two stories, but reflects an encroaching world of violence against women that is only hinted at in the barest sense in the previous section. Whereas “Lucy” plants the seeds of an idealized love into the young characters’ heads, “One Holy Night” shows characters brushing up with a harsh reality. In the two stories of this section, one character has a romantic brush with a serial killer (luckily surviving but not without some consequence), while another is associated with a girl who goes missing, is presumed dead, but turns out to be alive.
The final section “There Was A Man, There Was A Woman,” switches from children and adolescents to adults. The violence that was hinted at in the earlier stories is now present, especially in the title story, “Woman Hollering Creek.” The story follows a character named Cleofilas in her marriage to a man in Texas, but the love that she dreamed of, which came from Telenovelas and other stories of her youth, crashes down in the form of domestic abuse. She is saved by two Mexican American women who know stories like hers all too well. The stories here have inspired and continue to inspire me in my writing. The wit, culture, and experience in these stories are unlike anything I’ve read before or since.
Caramelo – Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros’s prose follow-up to Woman Hollering Creek, I didn’t even know Caramelo existed until this year. An epic novel following a Mexican American family’s road trip from Chicago to Mexico and back, it capitalizes on themes Cisneros has explored since House on Mango Street. It’s a marvel to see a writer’s ideas progress over time in the works they produce. The awful grandmother, rather than a concept off to the side like in Creek, is a full-fledged character in this novel. Following the only daughter of the main family, Celaya, the story doubles as a historical retelling of how Celaya’s family came to be, as well as historical information of parts of Mexican history.
What I admire about Cisneros’s most awesome work to date is how she manages to weave together so many narratives from different parts of the family’s and Mexico’s history, and still keeps the thread of the narrative intact. The novel is so grand, yet keeps Cisneros’s brand of scrappy looseness, owing so much to the voice of the characters she writes through.
2666 – Roberto Bolano
The final (if unfinished) novel by Chilean poet and author Roberto Bolano, 2666 is similarly an epic, but of a different proportion. Following different characters across the globe, they each have a similar aim or circumstance: finding an elusive German writer or solving a case of femicide in the Sonoran city of Santa Teresa (based on Ciudad Juarez, which is actually in Chihuahua).
Clocking in at 893 pages, the novel is no easy task, yet Bolano’s prose, translated to English by Natasha Wimmer, has a flow to it that echoes something along the lines of George R.R. Martin. It has a pulpy liquidity to the writing that lends easy understanding of what’s happening so that, even though there’s so much going on, the reader is never lost. It helps that the novel is segmented into five stories: the first focusing on a group of literary critics in search of Benno von Archimboldi. Three of the critics, a Frenchman, Spaniard, and an Englishwoman, form a tense love triangle in their journey across the European continent and beyond. The fourth, an Italian with multiple sclerosis, is restricted to study and limited travel. There is an encroaching darkness in this part of the work that the critics are relatively shielded from because of their privilege, but it is a tense atmosphere nonetheless. This part of the novel ends in the setting where the rest of the novel takes place: the Mexican border city called Santa Teresa. From there, a professor, a journalist, a policeman, and a writer chronicle the tale of what happened to the residents of Santa Teresa.
You Never Get It Back – Cara Blue Adams
The latest book I’ve been reading, You Never Get It Back is the debut collection of Cara Blue Adams, an alum of University of Arizona’s creative writing program. It won the John Simmons Award for Short Fiction as well as the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 2021. I read a couple stories out of this collection in various literary magazines after I finished college. Upon reading the second story by Adams and noticing similarities in character and voice compared to another story she’d put out in a different magazine, I realized that her stories were connected.
Linked stories can sometimes be considered an oddity. Like a novel, but not exactly. Short stories, that function like chapters. Most of the stories follow Adams’s protagonist Kate. Though there are a few stories that don’t include her, and they are strong in their own right, Kate’s life retains the focus of much of this collection. She’s a Vermonter who starts her career off as a scientist in New England before moving to the Southwest. We follow stories about her personal relationships: with friends, family, and significant others, reflected over her journeys across the country.
Like Cisneros, Adams’s literary ideas grow and link themselves as the collection progresses. Characters in Kate’s life, from boyfriends, to roommates, and others, appear and reappear in the stories. Sometimes they have a strong narrative focus, with Kate bouncing the struggles in her life off theirs. At others, they’re in the background, lingering almost like phantoms, a sign of what Kate is still holding onto. What I love about this collection is the way Adams uses language and tone to just lull the reader into a state where they’re enveloped in the story. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sink into stories like this.
These were a selection of books I’ve been reading so far this year. Culture, growing ideas, and growth all make for great reading and great areas for writing.
NICHOLAS LEON is a first-year fiction writer originally from Winston-Salem, NC. He has two wonderful dogs that occasionally give him feedback. He currently serves as a consultant in the University Writing Center.