I first heard of the "One Book, One Denver" program a couple of years ago when a coworker was reading The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols. Curious, I picked it up, and I loved it. After discovering that "One Book, One Denver" had only been in existence since 2004, I decided to read all the past selections. What can I say, I like to complete lists, I didn't want most/half/some/a few Denverites knowing all about this famous literature I had missed out on, and I trusted the powers-that-be to have chosen some good books. And doing the Cannonball Read was the perfect opportunity to catch up on this reading. Caramelo (2002) by Sandra Cisneros was the last of these...well, until Augustish when they announce the book for 2009.
2004 - Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
2005 - Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
2006 - The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols
2007 - Articles of War by Nick Arvin
2008 - The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Caramelo is a story about, and told by, a young Mexican-American, Celaya (or Lala) Reyes, growing up in Chicago with her mother, father and seven older brothers. Her family treks down to Mexico every summer to visit the "Awful Grandmother," "Little Grandfather," and "Aunty Light Skin." Lala is young, and her perspective is that of a child, but she still gives a clear picture of her family and her young life in the first section of the book. The second section falls back in time to discuss the early life of Lala's "awful" grandmother with more understanding and sympathy, before going back to Lala and her awkward adolescence in the third section when her family moves down to San Antonio, Texas. The themes of family, continuity, and connectivity are strong throughout the book, as well as growing up, alienation, and the experience of first-generation Mexican-Americans.
I was impressed by Caramelo and think it was a good selection for the Denver book. While I was reading, my mind kept comparing Caramelo with Middlesex, another book steeped in culture and discussing the adolescent travails of a young person, the history of her family, and their emigration to the United States. On the whole, I have to favor Middlesex, which kept me so entranced that I was sucking up the pages, barely even aware that I was reading. Although I enjoyed Caramelo and some parts hit me with their honesty and emotion, there wasn't much plot or excitement to keep me reading. I kept wondering where Cisneros was going next or why she was writing about a certain person or topic. Now that I've finished, I can't imagine the book being set up in any other way, but it made it a little harder to read--at least compared to Middlesex, which might be unfair since it was one of my favorite books of the year.
But that doesn't mean that I didn't like Caramelo. Dealing with your family always means convoluted emotions and histories that are hard for an outsider to understand or appreciate, but Cisneros allows an honest, realistic glimpse at the Reyes family through the youngest daughter, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. It isn't sentimental or overly optimistic, just real. A scene where the young Lala is teased by an old friend of her father's at a party but doesn't understand why everyone is laughing hit me so hard for some reason. Not that it was sad at all, just that it was written beautifully. The little disappointments and wants of childhood are so important when you're a child. Moments and sentences throughout the book either had me going back and reading it over again or just taking a deep breath to take it all in. Even though Caramelo wasn't quite the page turner that Middlesex was, it was complex, honest, and meaningful.