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I’ve been dipping in and out of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women for six weeks or so. With more than forty of the under-recognized fiction writer’s very intense short stories collected within it, the book is a lot to plow through all at once. Now that I’ve finished it, though, I have to confess that I need to read it again. Because I was reading only a few stories at a time, and reading other books in between–The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill and In My Humble Opinion by Soraya Roberts (about My So-Called Life!) among them–I didn’t connect the stories as much as I should have as early as I should have. Not putting together that many of the stories have the same protagonist, a woman whose life resembles the author’s in many ways, I missed out on a lot.
This is not to say that I was missing out on the stories’ individual brilliance–I wasn’t. And while there are some story fragments or slightly lesser works among these 400 or so pages, most stories really are genius. Berlin had a knack for picking just the right detail, for being unsentimental in the face of tragedy, and for landing an ending. I know some people are a bit critical of some of her “twist” endings, but I loved every one. In fact, near the end of the book, there’s a story called “Here It Is Saturday” about a creative writing class in a prison, that made me truly gasp out loud at the end. That’s a thing people say but don’t usually really do and I did. I can’t really explain why, because what was so awe-inspiring was the way that every narrative choice made in the story built up to the last line. If anything had been different, it might not have worked, but Berlin made all the right choices, and did it ever. You really have to read the story to understand. Read the rest of this entry »