A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

I wonder what it would have been like to read Lucia Berlin in the 1970’s, as my family was driving through the western United States on various extended vacations — two parents and five kids stuffed into a green Buick station wagon, me in the “wayback,” protected from my older siblings by walls of luggage and an enormous red igloo cooler. The Starcraft popup camper in tow, we ranged from San Antonio, Flagstaff, Yellowstone, to Sequoia National Park.

Memories: A hot parking lot, drinking RC Cola outside a laundromat in El Paso while Mom washes the clothes; getting a new pair of cowboy boots (I remember the smell of that leather) which I then wore everyday with my favorite purple shorts; butterflies lighting on my hand in San Juan Capistrano; skipping stones over streams we stopped on the side of the road to explore.

Lucia’s stories are the photos we didn’t take.

Reading Lucia Berlin’s short stories today is like diving right back into those memories, but without the emotional sepia-tint of the faded photos. Instead, a bone-scraping authenticity and a stolid acceptance of pain, family, and position expand our collective nostalgia. Berlin reveals the lives of every waitress that served my family dinner in greasy spoons from Albuquerque to Fresno, of the young overwhelmed working woman sitting alone with her toddler in the booth across from us, and of the wizened, skinny old Native American man with a pony tail and a bottle on the lawn chair outside his motel room.

In her day, Berlin sold few copies of her books and. although she garnered some critical recognition, her talents were vastly under-appreciated. Perhaps her portraits were too harsh for the soft-focus of the times. Even through the foggy lens of five decades, her still glass-shard sharp descriptions carve out real lives of beauty and sorrow.


The New Yorker: Memories of Mexico by Lucia Berlin

The Paris Review: Smoking with Lucia

Vanity Fair: Eleven Years After Her Death, Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author

Manual For Cleaning Women
A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Family vacations out West in the 70’s with my family, father in back
Sequoia National Park with my mother, brother, and sisters
Lucia Berlin, Albuquerque, New Mexico 1956
Lucia Berlin, Albuquerque, New Mexico 1956
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Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Look at Me by Anita Brookner
Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Brookner’s precise and darkly imaginative second novel explores, with an unstinting, dispassionate, and bone-scraping precision, the paradoxical and painful dichotomy between seeing and being seen.

Fanny Hinton, a handsome and sober young woman of means living alone with the aging family housemaid in the large London home of her childhood after her parents have died, spends her days in a medical library cataloging images of psychological states from art and antiquity. Although apparently doing everything she can not to be seen, Fanny secretly desires to be a participant in life, rather than simply an observer; she wants to be the one greedily and unselfconsciously eating the peach.

In the meantime, she finds that recording acute observations of the people around her provides some sense of relief from the oppression – the “claustration” – of her circumscribed life. When she achieves some success with the publication of a few of her short stories, she finds a measure of contentedness in the recognition, and sees a future vindicated in this mode of being seen, although it requires that she remain the observer, forever on the sidelines, watching and writing. Perhaps one day, Fanny thinks, she could achieve that sort of minor fame reserved for female novelists with acute perceptive abilities. Brookner is nothing if not wry.

A young, charismatic, and attractive psychologist from work named Nick and his glamorous wife Alix upset Fanny’s delicately balanced life on the sidelines when they adopt her as a friend. Fanny, in her idolization of the beautiful couple, and in her intoxication with their attentions, begins to believe that she might just have a seat at the rich banquet table of life. All of Fanny’s staid dreams of minor literary celebrity soon vanish as she envisions a future of richer fare — movie nights, eating out in restaurants, and perhaps even a love interest arranged by Alix.

Anita Brookner at home in 2001. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer
Anita Brookner at home in 2001. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

In reality, Nick and Alix sound like crashing, narcissistic boors, callously playing with the little mouse/toy Fanny until they tire of her and toss her away. Fanny desperately tries to comprehend the situation in which she finds herself, but cannot see past the categories she has assigned to her friends and colleagues.  Nor can she break the constraints of good manners, or of the fear of real answers that proscribe her from asking certain questions directly.

Fanny’s naked and immense desire for approbation — and for a seat at the table — is excruciatingly heart-breaking, and seems to represent, to this reader, at least, an eternal truth of the human heart.


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Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

Skylark by Deszo Kosztolanyi
Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

A compact masterpiece of storytelling – gastronomical, theatrical, musical – Skylark is a composition of joy and pain, written with great heart and gentle humor, and steeped in the turn-of-the-century flavors and characters of provincial Hungarian life from a forgotten time that Kosztolanyi has magically revived for us.

“They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang. Somehow the name had stuck, and she still wore it like an outgrown childhood dress.”
(Skylark, NYRB Classics, page 5.)

Although Skylark ultimately yields its quiet not-quite-triumph of lasting love, the journey and the conclusions are neither simple nor clear, leaving us to answer the questions to what we ourselves will do about the Skylarks of our own lives, and, perhaps more importantly, the Skylarks we find within our selves.

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M Train by Patti Smith

Patti wanders equally and easily through dreams, memories, as well as through what we call everyday life. The immediacy of her lovely thoughts, annotations, and reflections pull us so strongly into her consciousness that we feel blessedly wrapped in a magical fabric part dream, part memory and part real life – with no thread more or less significant than others.

This book will remain a well of inspiration for me for years to come. It tells me not be afraid to be passionate. Do not be afraid to honor the grandeur (or the simplicity) of your intentions, your loves, your losses.

Who would have thought that it takes so much strength to believe in what you love; such work to remember? Perhaps quiet devotion to your own experience as a human being is the sole requirement for being an artist.

Read M Train.

Let the light of poetry shine on you.









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The Door by Magda Szabó

Magda Szabó by Bodo Gabor
Magda Szabó by Bodo Gabor

The Door by Magda Szabó
The Door by Magda Szabó

What is behind the door?

Do not come to this book expecting to find easy answers to any of your tired questions about relationships, faith, poverty, love, or the meaning of life. Check your preconceptions at the door.

This is the real thing; it’s full of blood and sweat, ugliness and beauty; of simple truths set amidst racking inconsistencies, ambition, knowledge, accomplishment, growth, honesty.

Like life, the stories we tell to explain the things that happen barely graze whatever it is that we call the concrete reality of our lives. Our stories skim and skip from toehold to toehold, and out of a few, sometimes contradictory particles of perception, we create illusions of solidity, the cracked fictions in which we live, and, most importantly and ultimately, from which we touch one another.

The door is about touching another human being; connections built on alienations, mistaken beliefs, weakness and poor judgment.  Real connections. Tragedy, toil, and real love.


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A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, NYRB Classics
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, NYRB Classics

Patrick Leigh Fermor
Patrick Leigh Fermor

One of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s designs for Mitchinson’s House 1979; his own house, The Grange, is on the right
One of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s designs for Mitchinson’s House 1979; his own house, The Grange, is on the right.

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

One of the finest prose stylists I’ve ever read, although it is very rich stuff. Best to pack all twenty volumes of the OED in your knapsack if you want to read this on the subway and fully appreciate the breadth and zest.

One of my favorite parts was the description of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague beginning as he enters the building: “The last of the congregation were emerging to a fickle momentary sunlight. Indoors, the aftermath of incense, as one might say with a lisp, still floated among the clustered piers. Ensconced in their distant stalls, an antiphonal rearguard of canons was intoning Nones.” It goes on for five or six pages of sentences and phrases of playful exuberance that narrowly and sharply abut equally many of solemn elegance and poetry. In all, Fermor’s joyful linguistic lubricity rises but never disturbs his soaring genius for aphoristic and sensual description. It’s technicolor prose, really. There’s a lot in this book.

Another favorite line, reported from his soon-to-be-saccharine-smuggling friend Konrad upon returning to their hostel in Vienna late at night after a short day of cold-call nobility portrait sketching and a long evening involving a few too many tulip-shaped glasses of Himbeergeist, which led to their tiptoeing trippingly and noisily down a long row of beds of sleeping wayfarers until one woke up and started shouting and cursing. ‘Konrad sat down on the edge of his cot, murmuring as he unlaced his boots: “He was chafed by mishap, and choler unsealed their lips.”‘
Konrad spoke English with eccentric and archaic flare. I love that line.

Thanks, NYRB Classics for bringing us back another glorious tome.


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Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest

Querelle de Brest Illustration by Jean Cocteau
Querelle de Brest Illustration by Jean Cocteau

This simply astonishing tour de force performance of theatre and poetry twisted into an incredibly tightly knotted/plotted novel unfolds like an extended wild, mesmerizing erotic dream.

In one sense a simple murder/crime novel, Genet’s saturation of every sentence be it thought or action with sex generates intense power, and with what will be for some readers still in this day and age the most violent and heinous obscenities you’ve ever seen in pages of august literary classics of the 20th century.

But it’s not merely sordid. Genet’s highly stylized evocations of psychosexual dynamics, along with the shit and blood and sweat, joy, elation, obsession, affection, and need, which achieve both a specific particularity/realness and a level of myth/dream at the same time, reveal a vibrant and generous humanity underlying and redeeming (or sanctifying) this grossly amoral tale.

It must truly be one of the great works of art of the twentieth century.

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The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene

The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but it also felt in some way like a young adult novel; it seems like a brilliant book written by a boy. And yet there are deep honest truths about love and youth contained within the pages that resonated strongly with me.

Jim (Baxter) appears to be incapable of love. He talks about his own attempts at dating as if they were small sporting events, at best, or minor episodes of illness, at worst. Love for Jim is something to be recovered from in order to become stronger and better for the next round. This same lack of understanding of love that stems from his limited emotional capacity also thwarts his attempts to solve the riddle of Liza and the Captain’s relationship. He continuously questions whether he himself even loves Liza or the Captain, who have been the most important figures in his life – and the kindest to him – to date. But then perhaps he couldn’t understand love, given his tragically loveless childhood. And here is that truth: The desire to solve this riddle of love, to explain the strangeness in human relations, and to feel and understand love deeply — these are perhaps more universal among young adults and twenty-somethings than just being found in brilliant boys from broken homes. I remember similar feelings and thoughts in my callow twenties; did I really love my parents, or was it just a quirk of fate and chance that I was born and raised in such a family? Sadly, but perhaps necessarily, the experiences of illness and loss answered these important young adult quandaries. Pain is the answer; there is love and deep emotion.

Despite the young adult tone of this partially autobiographical novel, glimpses of authorial mastery glimmer through the joints in the narrative. In the brief passage that closes the first half of the novel where Jim wonders whether his lack of feeling toward these two major figures in his life is simply because he regards them more, or merely, as characters in a novel that he is writing. Fun! And brilliant. Borgesian, digging exactly at the root of so many questions of modernity.  The ending expands this meta narrative but not as elegantly, tersely, and originally. However, I liked the feeling of being slightly ripped off at the end of the book. Perfectly in keeping with the themes of the novel, it’s all a con anyway, isn’t it, this whole novel thing? Just made up stories…


Additional Resources




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The Unchangeable Spots of the Leopard

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

This books was a nice surprise. Beautifully written, energetic, intelligent, humane, thoughtful.

I’m in a good mood so I’m not going to say anything bad…

But if I were going to say something critical, I would only mention that the author’s/narrator’s relentless quest for his sense of self and his identity feels very late-twenties, thirty-something. And very egocentric.

Despite that tiny, persistent annoyance, the book is entirely enjoyable – a small masterpiece of a first novel. The writing is stupendous, although self-consciously rambunctious. I look forward to future novels by Jansma and hope to be dazzled again, but perhaps less pyrotechnically.

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House Hold: A Memoir of Place by Ann Peters

House Hold
A Memoir of Place by Ann Peters

I first heard Ann Peters read from this book in the summer of 2012 in Wisconsin; it was one of the most compelling and enjoyable book readings I’ve ever attended. I’ve since read the book in its entirety and found powerfully moving its many keen observations and her heartfelt chronicling of her family, the town she grew up in, and the cities and towns she’s moved through on her journey. I love the way she seeks images of family and life in literature and film – don’t we all do that? It’s so thoughtful and rich without being stuffy, even when she quotes Henry James or William Dean Howells, or the opening line of the movie “Rebecca.”

This is a beautiful book – elegant and powerfully moving.


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