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

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Two critical essays on Lucia Berlin

Two good introductory essays - Lydia Davis and Stephen Emerson - in Lucia Berlin's posthumous collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Both, despite the obligatory caution about assuming we know the writer's life because we've read the writer's fiction - yeah, yeah, but few writers have dealt repeatedly with the same narrative strands in literally every single published work over the course of a lifetime - make some sharp analyses of Berlin's style: rapid, efficient, quirky. Davis notes that she doesn't waste a word, and sometimes includes a descriptive detail as if it were a note: in the midst of a description of her old, quaint, NY neighborhood with Melville windows (immediately bringing us into the world of Melville in NY 19th-century, Bartleby et al) and no traffic on a Sunday and then she inserts the words: clop clop. Which tells us she can, we can, imagine the sound of horses on the street, another 19th-century detail, but see how she does both with one or two words, w/out spelling everything out? I don't especially like sentence fragments (blogging aside) and when editing always encouraged journalists to write out their thoughts and observations in full - write with nouns and verbs - but in some literary fiction fragments have a place, and we can see in Berlin the influence of objectivist poetry (Williams, Pound) and the Black Mountain poets: it was no surprise to me that she knew Creeley, and I'm sure he was helpful to her career, as he was to so many, a very generous and kind man. Davis also mentions her many medical stories (she had a few jobs in hospitals, and was a hell of an acute observer) and her sympathy with Williams and Chekhov, the two great doctor-writers: a coolness objectivity that a doctor needs in diagnosis and treatment, as well as the humanity and compassion that good doctors have, and we see this in some of her greatest stories, such as Mijito. Finally, Emerson notes her killer closing lines and her deft humor, citing, from the last story she wrote (he says - it's 3rd from last in the collection), B.F. and Me, about a guy she hires to put flooring into her trailer (!), she gives him a pretty awful description, huge, unkempt, reeking - and concludes the paragraph with: I liked him right away. As Emerson says: Who wouldn't want to read these stories? Or, as I'd say: Who wouldn't want to know this person? And, reading her stories, we do.

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