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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Never read anything quite like Lucia Berlin's stories

I've never read anything quite like Lucia Berlin's stories collected in her posthumous and, sadly, only truly well-known collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women. How to put it? No other writer I know of has written with such directness and honesty about frightful and dismal subjects, all seemingly just on the edge of autobiographical, but with such a lively and witty style, as if she's not seeking attention and certainly not seeking pity but just giving us access to her complex and troubled life. Among the first 15 or so stories in the collection - and each story (w/ one or two exceptions) is quite short, almost just a sketch: a terrific and strange account of the friendship she builds with an Apache man as their paths (and lives) cross in a Laundromat - and at the end he just plain doesn't show up there any more and it takes her some time to realize that; recovering from a serious alcohol binge in the detox ward, and at the end driving away (in car she damaged during binge) and parking at an overlook and thinking about a grocery list - are there any other stories that link such sorrow and depravity with tender domesticity? Another: at an abortion clinic in Juarez - sad, scary, and the narrator is entirely nonplussed and obviously smarter and more socially competent than most of the people she meets during her troubled journeys. And the title story - a little longer, a little more of a concept piece, a story with a title that leaps out at us now (probably didn't so much when written in the 70s maybe?) of a Berkeley-area cleaning woman who obviously learns from her work about the secret lives and sorrows of others, the story punctuated by bus journeys (including the names of the routes) and occasional parenthetic suggestions for other cleaning women. I'm afraid with all this I have not put my finger on exactly what makes her work stand out - definitely one element would be the topical descriptions, which are often just lists, and that verge on objectivist poetry (with which she was connected by marriage and friendship). The collection has a thoughtful biographical note - the stories stand on their own, but it's also helpful to understand their conditions of composition; I wish it also had better documentation of when the stories were written, and when and where published.

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