Saturday, February 20, 2016

"A Manual for Cleaning Women: Stories," by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015) is a wow!-wow!-wow!-real-deal book. A collection of short stories that are openly based on the author’s life, it embodies the grit, pain, grief, glories, love, joy, ambivalence, rejection, and acceptance of a life extremely thoroughly lived. Although these are stories, they are mostly connected by a similar main character, sometimes but not always named (fittingly) Dolores, along with her sister Sally, her parents and grandparents, her sons, her husbands, and her lovers. There is poverty, abuse, cancer, alcoholism, and death, but there is also great love, intense experience, various places in the world (notably Chile, as well as cities all over the United States) experienced in all their glory, families that explode and implode and reconnect, a love of books and writing, and a main character who both smothers feelings with alcohol and is utterly open to all the world has to offer. Contradictory, yes. Very human, yes. And all observed in these stories with the clearest of eyes. For those of us (OK, me, at least) who like to impose order on artistically arranged disorder, it might have been preferable to have the stories ordered chronologically (correlating with the author's own experiences, not with dates of publication), or grouped according to some principle, but that is like asking life to be more orderly than it is. Besides, the editor of this book, published posthumously, must have had reasons for the way the stories are ordered. I say this not in the least as an indictment of the book, but to poke a little fun at myself for my “control freak” desire to impose a more discernible order. The editor, Stephen Emerson, gathered stories from several previous collections by wonderful but small presses (most notably, Black Sparrow) in order to put together this outstanding collection and to give the stories more exposure. For Emerson, a colleague and friend of Berlin's, along with the other editors and various others who were involved, this book was clearly a labor of love. Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) herself, like her characters, led a complicated and difficult life, including struggling with alcoholism for many years, but eventually became sober and became a beloved professor of writing at the University of Colorado Boulder. All the while, she was sporadically writing. Sadly, she became ill and a few years later died in California, where some of her sons lived. It is quite likely that her work would have been more or less lost to obscurity if it were not for the gathering of her stories into this book, so great kudos are due to the editor, the publisher, and everyone else involved. I only wish she had lived to see the success that the book is having; it has been greeted with much praise and excellent reviews. Adding context to the book is a terrific foreword by the highly esteemed short-short-story writer Lydia Davis and an informative and insightful introduction by the editor, Stephen Emerson. Davis says that in these stories “…we never know quite what is going to come next. Nothing is predictable. And yet everything is also natural, true to life, true to our expectations of psychology and emotion” (p. xiv). Emerson adds that “The prose claws its way off the page. It has vitality….What her work has, is joy….It is writing continuous with the irrepressibility—humanity, place, food, smells, color, language. The world seen in all its perpetual motion, its penchant to surprise and even delight” (p. xix-xx). And, Emerson adds, “a riotous humor animates” her work (p. xxi). All of this is true even when the stories are at their most heartbreaking (see, for example, the story “Mijito”). I hope I – with the help of the words of Davis and Emerson – have convinced you that this is an extraordinary writer and an extraordinary and deeply rewarding collection of fiction. Highly recommended!
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