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

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Monday, May 30, 2016

Reading Berlin's fiction - a memoir in fits and starts

Probably no one should read Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women the way I'm reading it - 400 pp., maybe 75 stories?, straight through; this is a collection of her lifetime of work (complete collection of all of her stories?), published I think in 3 volumes, each small-press, during her lifetime; I don't believe she ever published a novel, not sure if she even tried that form. So to read everything straight through over the course of a few days - I'm about 3/4 through - gives a misimpression: there's lot's of repetition, the same themes and characters working through the same conditions time and again. In a sense that would be true of many other writers - reading through a collection that spans a lifetime of work gives insight into their character and personality that reading any one story or even any one collection from a period of their life cannot. But Berlin's case is extreme. Among writers, she's particularly blessed and cursed by a troubled and complex life story, privileged but damaging upbringing, multiple family re-locations including many yeas in South America, several tough marriages, continued battle w/ addiction. All of this gives her "material" but also gives her obsessions that she must work out through fiction. Her writing is great, but her scope is limted: 3/4 of the way through and every single story has a narrator or protagonist who is unmistakably Berlin herself. The story I just started last night is the first that breaks that mold, to a degree - with a narrator (for at least part of the story, a very long story by Berlin standards, with multiple POVs), is a defense attorney. To read through Manual as I am doing, then, is to read what seems like a memoir in fragments, in fits and starts (this may change in the final stories - written during a time when she had found sobriety and academic success), which may not be what Berlin intended - who knows exactly what she intended or why she wrote? to make a living? to earn recognition? to wrestle with her demons? to connect? - but it's a way to appreciate the greatness of her accomplishment and to wonder about what might have been.

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