Monday, April 25, 2011

Branching Out: Novels as Linked Short Stories

Last week, Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm put up a fascinating post discussing changes in how she reads since she started blogging. Her post really got me thinking about how, or if, or in what form this blog has changed my own reading habits. Here's what I came up with: This blog hasn't so much changed how I read as it's changed what I read. (We've already been over the fact that the blog has sped up my reading in terms of books-per-year.)

Here's one major example: In my entire 32 years of life before starting this blog, I'd never willingly read one of those interconnected-short-story novels. And the only one I had read — rather unwillingly in college — was Winesburg Ohio. Those types of novels have always been turn-offs for me. Given my preference for longer books — staying with characters and story for hundreds of pages — these tales-told-in-snapshot just weren't appealing.

But last March, a friend, having recently discovered my blog, lent me her copy of Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders — a National Book Award-nominated collection of interconnected stories about life in Pakistan. Soon after that, I agreed to participate in a blog tour for Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, a National Book Award-winning novel of stories about New York. And then, earlier this year, based on about 153 blog-comment recommendations, I read Tom Rachmann's The Imperfectionists, a novel of linked stories about an English-language newspaper in Rome. There's no two ways about it, all three of these novels are phenomenal. I loved 'em!

And now, I'm almost through Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Good Squad, which I'd avoided, despite the facts that I'd very much enjoyed the three novels-via-linked-short-stories mentioned above, and that it comes highly recommended by The Reading Ape, and that it won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and that it just won the Pulitzer.

The lesson here: I'm nothing, if not a stubborn reader. A Visit From the Good Squad is fantastic as well, and so having avoided these types of novels my whole reading life, now I've read four really, really good ones in the past 12 months. Amazing, right? See, it pays to get over your hang-ups and try new things! And it's almost all attributable to conversations via this blog.

And now that I'm over that hang-up, what can you recommend in the way of other great novels told as linked short stories?  What are some of your favorites?


  1. The only one I have on my shelves is 'I play the drums in a band called okay,' which is really good.

    The stories are all about the same people, but it didn't read as a novel at all, there was no overarching arc or idea or theme.

    The ones you talk about sound like they're doing a bit more than that, they're not just short stories put together loosely.

  2. Thanks for the linkage :-)

    Have you read Day for Night by Rick Reiken? It came out last year, and it's a series of linked stories old through varying perspectives. Trick is, the perspectives never repeat, but Reiken is really clever in weaving them all together without being too overwhelming. I really liked it.

  3. You've read many of the good ones already. The Hours by Michael Cunningham is really three linked novellas. I'm a big fan of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout which is linked short stories all featuring the same set of characters.

    Maybe I should get over my own issues with Jennifer Egen and give the Goon Squad a try.

  4. Linked novellas (see, I learned something today) could work but it's very difficult. For example I didn't enjoy Let The Great World Spin ( To be honest, the best link novella's I've read are in graphic novel form (The Sandman for example).

  5. Loved the writing (maybe more than the stories themselves) in Great World, would love to try some of your other suggestions now. Interesting to think about how blogging influences how you read. I've also found it has encouraged me to try (and love) some different reads (esp. small press/indie) which I might not have otherwise.

  6. I loved Mary and O'Neil by Justin Cronin (as different from The Passage as you can imagine). I also second the emotion about Olive Kitteridge-superb writing.

  7. I'm reading Goon Squad right now as well. I didn't know that Let The Great World Spin was one.

    My favorite interconnected story book is Tim O'Brien's, The Things They Carried.

  8. I also much prefer novels to short stories, although these linked short stories as novels are usually an exception because the thigns I hate about short stories - getting rid of all the characters as soon as I get to know them, plots all over the place - aren't really a factor with these kinds of books. That said, I don't exactly seek them out or anything.

    I adored Olive Kittredge. I vote for that one too.

  9. I've found that SK interlinks his storylines and characters. I didn't notice it until I found some similarities between some characters a few years back and he had gone to the trouble of relating some of the characters from one book to another one he had written; quite ingenious really. You just gotta know what to look out for.

    I haven't read any books of interlinking stories, but one of my blogs has interlinking stories; the Fry Nelson one. It's very hard to do at first, but once you get their history up and running, it's quite a lot of fun because if you run out of stories ideas, you can always delve into past stories and other connections to split hairs - so to say - and enjoy working through another plot that way.

  10. I 100% agree with you about In Other Rooms, Other Wonders/Let the Great World Spin/Imperfectionists/ Goon Squad. I also recommend Olive Kitteridge. Cloud Atlas is also up there, not just interconnected stories but a legitimate puzzlebox of a book! If this is the literary zeitgeist, I hope it keeps on zeitgeisting.

  11. @Ben - Yeah, I think the key to making the novel-in-short-story work is that there must be an identifiable theme that runs throughout all the stories, so that there's a identifiable reason why they've been put together the way they have. That's what separates a novel from a short story collection, right? But I'm just stating the obvious here, really.

    @Kerry - Nope, haven't read that - but I'm off to check it out. Sounds very good - thanks for the recommendation!

    @CB - Ah, Olive Kitteridge - of course. That's another one I sort of mentally checked off my list when I learned it's a novel in short stories. Seems like the Pulitzer folks like these novels in short stories!

    @Man - Well, technically a novella is something pretty different - it's the middle ground between a short story and a novel.

    @bookspersonally - Yeah, McCann's writing was simply wonderful. I love it when you can read something like that and enjoy it more for the writing than the story - which, if it's good, is merely a bonus! I actually did like most of the stories in Let The Great World Spin, too, though.

  12. @bibiliophiliac - Thanks for the recommendations. I should've at least mentioned Olive Kitteridge in this post. I'm definitely going to read it now!

    @LBC - Enjoying Goon Squad? I read bits of The Things They Carried in college, but never the whole thing. I did enjoy the little I read, though. May have to add that back to the list.

    @Carin S - Vote #3 for Olive Kitteridge. It's settled now - thanks for the recommendation. And I agree with you about the things that bother me about the strict short story collections are less an issue with these linked-stories-novels.

    @Mozette - That's interesting. It occurs to me, though, that there's a fine line between delving into characters pasts as a way to flesh out their present or future stories more - and actually just telling their stories. I had a writing teacher in college explain it that it's very critical to differentiate between what YOU as the writer need to know about these characters' backgrounds to tell their stories and what your reader to know. Obviously, what you need to know is much, much more than what your reader may need to know. If the backstories/connections are interesting - then knock yourself out telling them. But more often than not, these details are just details you, but not your reader, needs to understand.

    @booksaremyboyfriends - Ah, good call on Cloud Atlas - I bought that awhile ago, but haven't read it yet. I'm excited to try it, though - thanks for remind me!

  13. "Olive Kittredge" by Elizabeth Strout and "Music of the Swamp" by Lewis Nordan are two of my favorite story collections which have been labeled "novels" by their publishers. And of course "Winesburg, Ohio," the granddaddy of them all.

  14. I am three-quarters of the way through Cloud Atlas right now and it is amazing. You will never read anything quite like it, I venture to say. I adored Olive Kittredge, not for the "short story" format so much as because the author was not afraid to present an often unpleasant, yet thoroughly human, protagonist.

  15. Here's another vote for you to finish The Things They Carried. The linked story-novel can have you re-interpreting the larger narrative over and over, which is something that was so memorable about that book ever since I read it back in high school.

  16. I read about half of Olive Kitteridge but it was so depressing (and I was so overwhelmed with attempting to write my own interconnected short story collection at the time) that I had to put it down. It was good, and I plan to go back to it at some point. Usually I'm not so put off by depressing things but maybe just the sheer volume of sadness was too much for me.

    Thanks for posting this! I love interconnected short stories and have a hard time finding them, so the plethora of new recommendations (both from you and the comments) is greatly appreciated! Just to add one to the list: The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro is wonderful and a classic of the style. I'm surprised nobody else mentioned it!

  17. I am actually really surprised that no one put Hearts in Atlantis up on here. Great book.