The Stunning/Fun Category: Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women & Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm

I have read so many new books in the stunning-and/or-fun category this month that I don’t know where to begin.  And so this is a “You’ve Got to Read This” post, a brief compilation of notes.

Lucia Berlin Manual for Cleaning Women ows_143896332265002If you are on a “reading from your shelves” kick, as so many bibliophiles are these days, make an exception for Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women:  Selected Stories, a stunning collection with an enthusiastic preface by Lydia Davis and an emotional introduction by editor Stephen Emerson.  Until the recent  publication of this book by FSG, Berlin’s work had been out of print for years, and was originally published by small presses.

These witty autobiographical stories are economical, buoyant, and moving.  Born in 1936, Berlin was raised in mining camps in Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana, Texas, and, after World War II, her father moved them to Santiago, Chile.  She attended  the University of New Mexico.  Her first husband was a sculptor; her second a musician.  She raised four sons, mostly on her own.  She struggled with alcoholism and was in and out of rehab programs.  She worked as a cleaning woman, hospital clerk, high school teacher, college writing teacher, and physician’s assistant.

All of this is in the stories.

In “Angel’s Laundromat,” the narrator and “a tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a Zuni belt” do their laundry at Angel’s in Albuquerque.

The strange thing was that for a year or so we were always at Angel’s at the same time.  But not at the same times.  I mean some days I’d go out at seven on Monday or maybe at six thirty on a Friday evening and he would already be there.

The Indian, Tony, sits beside her drinking Jim Beam and tells her he is a chief. She says she got her first cigarette from a prince. During one of their laundry sessions his hands shake so badly that he gives her dimes so she can turn on the dryer for him.  Another time he passes out, and she and Angel, who has posted AA slogans on the walls, drag him into the back room and take care of him.  Not much happens , but her sympathetic encounters with Tony are quotidian until suddenly she realizes she has not seen him in a while.

In “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” she alternates vignettes about cleaning a client’s coke mirror with Windex with advice for cleaning women, like “As for cats…never make friends with cats, don’t let them play with the mops, the rags.”  In “Strays,” the narrator enjoys her time in a methadone rehabilitation program.

I especially love a series of stories about two sisters who become close after the younger is diagnosed with cancer.   Dolores, a nurse from California, moves to Mexico to take care of Sally, who has had a mastectomy and is grieving over her divorce.  In “Grief,” they take a vacation together, and Dolores persuades Sally to put on a swimsuit, and arranges a diving experience that brings joy back to Sally.    In “Fool to Cry,”Sally has found a lover, despite her chemo and sickness, and Dolores meets a former boyfriend who has lost all his charm.  The stories are poignant and tragic, yet Berlin also has zest and humor.  It gave me a new perspective on my own struggles, as great fiction does, even when they are not like the author’s.

Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock 51VidSbsxXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm is labeled SF, but reads more like meta-fiction than fantasy.  He alternates a fascinating autobiography of his life in London as a writer and musician in the ’60s and ’70s with fictional forays into a strange land behind a wall in the heart of London where historical characters mingle with characters in fiction.

If you’re interested in the history of SF in the twentieth century, this is your book.  By the age of 16, Michael was editing SF magazines and writing his own SF.  He was able to write a book in two weeks.  His goal was to reunite the genres of literary and popular fiction.  His friends included innovative writers like Mervyn Peake and Philip K. Dick.

Moorcock mourns the passing of the ’60s, and so do I reading this. I came of age later, but I understood the zeitgeist.

We were an active part of the zeitgeist.  When I was twenty-five it was literary suicide to mention an enthusiasm for Mervyn Peake, and most critics ignored him.  Literary careerists avoided Peake, Firbank and others.  Not many read the French absurdists and existentialists…. The same was true of other writers, painters and composers.  Now Peake and visionaries like him are known to every educated household.  Culturally, we were a little ahead of the ’60s.

I love the autobiographical sections, but Goodreads reviewers prefer Michael’s fantastic trips to Alsacia.  There are many unusual elements in the Alsacia sections.   A “whispering swarm” hums so loudly in his ears that he cannot concentrate on his writing for long without going to Alsacia, where it seems he has special talents.  His adventures in Alsacia probably refer to the mix of pulp and literary fiction he wrote himself (but I don’t know Moorcock’s work except for the Elric books).

‘Nuff said.  This is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

A Very Short Trip to London!

Shall I go to Keats House?

Shall I go to Keats House?

I love London. The bookstores!   The theater!  (We can’t get tickets for Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, but nobody can.)  I hoped you might have suggestions for sightseeing, bookstores, etc., for our short trip to London.

How about literary events?  On Sunday at The London Lit Weekend, Sir Peter Stothard, classicist, writer, and editor of the TLS,  will chair a session with Tom Holland and Edith Hall on “Why the Classics Matter Today.”  Stothard is a stunning writer (read Alexandria:  The Last Days of Cleopatra), and I enjoyed Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus. But I have a bad record for ticketed events on vacation:  I skipped a literary event last time, because I didn’t feel like navigating the trains.  Perhaps I should read Holland’s new book instead?  (I’m waiting for Stothard’s next book.)

Is it necessary to see Chelsea and Soho, or was that a ’60s thing?  How about the antique shops on Kensington Church Street? Why can I only think of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington?  What’s your favorite place in London?

Last time I didn’t bother with Westminster. Should I?  Do I need to walk in St. James Park like Mrs. Dalloway?  I’m rereading Mrs. Dalloway for the trip.

My guidebook makes it sound as though Hampstead is in the wilds.  “[It] has always stayed aloof form London…”  But that’s where Keats House is.  And yet if I go to Keats House I will buy Keats merchandise.   Do I need more Keats books?  No.  But I might need the t-shirt.

Little-known museums?  Favorite ruins? Favorite restaurants? Plays I should see?

You-all helped me a lot in 2014, so please tell me your favorite London things.  This is just a mad dash! and no time for rendezvous or the English countryside.  You know London better than I…

An Online Betrayal: Were We Ever Friends?

exhausted-woman with head down at deskThe internet is my friend.

It is a great thing; it is a terrible thing.

I have won jobs through email; I have lost jobs through email.

It has given me a site to write this bookish blog.  As favorite bloggers close down their blogs, I have become increasingly frantic about finding new blogs. The good ones are few and far between.

Blogging is an old-fashioned, if rough-hewn, activity.  In terms of  the internet, blogs are “virtually” as polished as Montaigne’s essays or Pepys’s diary. The opinions and arguments are expressed at greater length and are better-developed than the short, snappy bits on Facebook and Twitter.  Amateurs toil in their spare time to share their opinions of books, movies, or politics.   I am talking about the tens of thousands or millions (I don’t know the numbers) of amateurs who love to write.

But the internet is a peripatetic community of the lonely and restless. We look for a connection we don’t have in our real lives: in my case  bookish friends!  For a few years we post on book boards; then it’s Yahoo or Google discussion groups ; then the online communities fight about Edward Said’s brilliant memoir Out of Time (politics, Jerusalem, and Palestine) or even Jane Austen (a source of great contention); the groups break up; they move on to  Goodreads; Twitter;, Pinterest, etc. .

It makes my head ache to think about all the electronic blips that mark our online lives.  Is the blog I deleted in 2005 still whizzing through cyberspace like a meteor?  How about those discussions on AOL of Wally Lamb and Andrea Barrett?

The internet can bring people with similar interests together.  I keep my expectations low.  I have enjoyed exchanging postcards, letters, and book with bloggers and members of my groups.  At the Southern Festival of Books dozens of members of an online book group met to, attend readings, chat, and go to restaurants.  We were not soulmates, but a certain loyalty united us.  Even if I never see S., C., R. P. or J. again, I will consider them my friends.

Recently i experienced an online betrayal.

An online friend  asked me to visit her.  I hadn’t flown in years and was eager to get out of the Midwest for a few days.  We went to concerts, the theater, and museums, and had a lovely time.  We have stayed in touch.

But recently she attacked me at her blog.  This is the kind of online interaction I dread, and yet we’re all involved in this kind of thing.  I wrote something about a writer she admired who was pulling out all the stops to make another writer look bad.  Then my friend wrote a blog attacking me for attacking the critical writer.

After she posted the blog, she sent me a note with the header:  “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”   I put it in the trash, dear reader.  I didn’t dare read anymore of it.  I was deeply hurt.

I am finally over it.  She is not a troll.  But isn’t there something wrong with our “break-up”?

It is the classic breakup on the internet.  When people find they are not soulmates, they hit at each other.

Puzzling and sad.   But it makes me question my online activities.  We all make mistakes.  Where do we draw the line?  Should we strive to be more polite so we don’t hurt each other’s feelings?  Should we stop criticizing writers and only write about the books we like?


Everyone draws a different line in the sand.

An Autumn Walk, Political Signs, & Vera Caspary’s “Laura” in “Women Crime Writers”

An autumn garden.

An autumn garden in the Midwest.

I dread the autumn, but there is no need to this year.  The light is enchanting. It is 80 degrees.  I feel like a character in a New England novel (preferably Jo in Little Women, who carries apples in her pocket and says, “Christopher Columbus!”). The leaves are a bit dry but a few flowers still bloom.

As W. S. Merwin says in “To the Light of September”:

and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer

Nothing happening in the ‘hood today, but political signs are starting to appear in yards.

I SAW ONE HILLARY SIGN.  Hillary is strong, articulate, and even over-qualified, with a distinguished record as New York Senator and Secretary of State.  But will a woman ever be elected president in the U.S.?  The Republicans and the media are going after her, as usual:  if not about her email, it would be something else.   My mother, a political science major, was disappointed she didn’t live to see a woman in the White House. Will it be Hillary’s year?

The Hillary house.

I SAW TWO BERNIE SIGNS.  The popular Bernie Sanders, who got 72% of the vote for U.S. senator in Vermont in 2012, is catching up with Hillary in the polls. I can support him, but this ain’t Vermont:  can a socialist really compete with Hillary?


And now I’ll tell you what I’ve been reading (because that’s much more interesting).

Women Crime Writers Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s 51KoYBh1+5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I was utterly engrossed by Vera Caspary’s Laura, a brilliant 1944 crime classic reissued in Women Crime Writers:  Four Suspense Novels of the 1940 (Library of America). This stunning mystery has so many angles: it’s like being in a hall of mirrors.  Laura was also made into a popular Otto Preminger film with Gene Tierney in 1944.

Laura is more than a tough crime classic.  It is also a psychological novel.  Who would want to kill popular Laura, a successful advertising executive about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a refined Southern copywriter?  Everybody loved Laura.  But then her maid finds her corpse  in her apartment:  the weapon was a sawed-off shotgun.

Told from three different points of view (it is actually more complicated), it traces the investigation of her murder.  It opens with the bitter narrative of her friend, Waldo Lydecker (Lie-decker?), an obese, pompous newspaper columnist who thinks no one is good enough for Laura.  He is irritated by the interrogation of the smart, masculine detective, Mark McPherson, whom he describes cynically as “a veritable Cassius who emphasized the lean and hungry look by clothing himself darkly in blue, double-breasted worsted, unadorned white shirt and dull tie.”  Waldo, who has written columns about crime, has one thing in common with Mark:  they both hate mystery fiction.  His voice is amusing as well as venomous.

I still consider the conventional mystery story an excess of sound and fury, signifying far worse than nothing, a barbaric need for violence and revenge in the timid horde known as the reading public.  The literature of murder investigation bores me as profoundly as its practice irritated Mark McPherson….  I offer the narrative, not so much as a detective story but as a love story.

vera caspary laura_dellWhy is it a love story?  Waldo observes that the tough detective Mark is falling in love with Laura through  interviews with friends and suspects and the lovely objects and books in her apartment.   And Mark confirms it in his narrative. He began reading classics after he was shot and spent a long spell in the hospital.  He envies Laura her education, and wishes he had known her.   His working-class observations are sharper than those of Laura’s well-educated friends and relatives, because he is an outsider.

I can’t tell you who the third narrator is.  You will be shocked.

Another theme in Caspary’s novel is the difficulty of career women finding suitable men. And so I must share with you Laura’s maid Bessie’s view of Mark.

“A man,” Bessie said.  “Most of them that comes here are big babies or old women.  For once, even if he’s a dick, you’ve met a man.” And then, completely in the groove of man-worship, added, “Guess I’ll make a chocolate cake.”

Sarah Weinman,  editor of two Library of America volumes of Women Crime Writers, Sarah Weinman writes at the LOA blog about women’s “domestic suspense stories.”

 Domestic suspense is the mirror image of romance fiction; where romance is about conflict resolving into a happy ending, domestic suspense is about a happy beginning (of marriage, children, or independence) splintering into chaos. With the post-war economy on the upswing and new technology, like inexpensive cars and kitchen appliances, freshly available to couples and families, it seemed a simple thing to slip back into traditional roles of wifehood and motherhood, even if those roles were outmoded. Novels of domestic suspense took the fantasy of suburban living and uncovered the bile and dreck subsisting underneath, a clever subversion that also doubled as a mirror to sublimated terror.

I loved Laura, and can’t wait to read the other three in this  volume:  Helen Eustin’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall.

Our Desert Island Lit Lists, or Who Says I’m Not Pop?

Should Jackie Collins books be displayed at the library?

Should Jackie Collins books be displayed at the library?

My cousin the librarian is in-your-face pop culture, as modern librarians tend to be.   She recently created a Jackie Collins display at the branch library.  I do not think the library should display Jackie Collins’ books, though I am sorry Collins died.  “How about a nice dead E. L. Doctorow display?”

“Why not Dickens?” She says I need a reality check because Jackie Collins fans check out more books than “litter-arrrry” readers.

A recent survey of my bookshelves did not reassure her that I am not too bookish. “No, no, no! Long ago discarded!”  she teases me about Gilbert Highet, Christopher Isherwood, and Pamela Hansford Johnson.  “No thinking woman clutters up her house with such rubbish.”

“That rubbish is my desert island list!”


Gilligan’s Island

Today, because of the desert island mention, she insisted we have a “Gilligan’s Island” marathon (it’s about castaways).    After three episodes, we gave up (the show is very dated) decided to make Desert Island Lit Lists.

We’re going to Nantucket.  Of course that’s a desert island!  There’s sand, isn’t there?

My cousin’s shocking list first, then mine.


Phyllis Whitney’s Listen for the Whisperer  (well-written romantic suspense).  The plot:  After her father’s death, Leigh goes to Norway to find the movie star mother she never knew, who  is being stalked by a murderer.   Suspense-full!

Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.  Set on a sheep station!  Romance with a priest!  Made into a miniseries!

Laura Lippmann’s Tess Monaghan series.  Yes, I am taking the whole series.  Five s, eight, twelve–who cares?

(She can take three Laura Lippmann books or five Laura Lippmann books.  That’s all!)


Dorothy Sayers’s Five Red Herrings.   It’s a Peter Wimsey mystery.  A hilariously fiery artist is murdered.   And there’s a pub in it.  And there’s a bicycle in it.  WHO SAYS I’M NOT POP?

Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  It’s very long, but I absolutely love it.  Sleighs, skating, dressing up, balls, bears strapped to policemen’s backs, travel, war: it has everything.  It is a page-turner.  I mean this.  WHO SAYS I’M NOT POP?

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.  Nancy kindly sent me a copy of this. Le Guin is one of the best American SF writers.  Online reviewers sat this dystopian novel is reminiscent of Brave New World.

Poems of Catullus (Latin).  These lyric poems are lovely, entertaining, extremely modern, and mostly short.  Every reader of Roman poetry knows his love poems about his unfaithful girlfriend Lesbia, who is thought to be based on a promiscuous older woman, Clodia Metelli, though I personally do not read these as autobiography.    I love his elegy to Lesbia’s dead pet sparrow, and invectives against Caesar, Cicero, and others.

I’D LOVE TO KNOW YOUR DESERT ISLAND LIT BOOKS.  What island will you go to???

The Dream of Paper Products & Suitable Shopping Outfits

Two-pocket folders!

                                             Two-pocket folders!

I went to the mall to buy two-pocket folders.

It is actually the dying mall.  The Gap moved out and the tattoo parlors have moved in. Signs at the entry invite you to tweet a picture of yourself.   Heavens, who ya gonna tweet at the mall?  I have no electronics in my purse.

First I went to Target.  A few years ago I stood in line behind a woman who said she could live anywhere with a Target. That would be anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.  I know what she means.  I love Target.

I carried a big plastic basket into the office supplies section.  Cute notebooks, but I have cute notebooks.  The two-pocket folders had cover art featuring Hello, Kitty! and superheroes.  Disappointing.

I moved on to the office supply store.  I naively believed the Notebook section would have notebooks.  No, it was electronic tablets!   In the ’90s I wrote an article for a business magazine posing the question,  “Is the dream of the paperless office dead?”    It was then, but I fear it is alive again.

Finally I found suitable paper products. How can you go wrong with folders with floral designs and polka dots?

More folders IMG_3292I also bought pens, because I like to have the option of writing in purple or pink ink.

And then there are the post-it page markers.  I wanted the kind shaped like arrows.  They have no such thing. Has anyone used these post-it markers in books?  Do they ruin the paper?   There is a warning:  Test before using.  Not for my first editions of Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, and Barbara Pym!

One dreadful thing happened at the mall. I was wearing a bicycling outfit instead of a bicycling/shopping outfit, and when I passed a mirror I was appalled to see the threads hanging from my 15-year-old t-shirt. I rushed to a clothing store.   I went through the sales racks and found a suitable top.  “I’m going to wear this,” I told the cashier, who blipped her scanner at the tag.

The dream of a suitable shopping outfit isn’t dead!

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim: Is It Funny?

AMis lucky jim t100_novels_lucky_jimI chortled as I reread Lucky Jim.

In Kingsley Amis’s brilliant academic satire, a novel I have loved since my college days, the hero, Jim Dixon, teaches medieval history at a provincial university.   He has no interest in his subject, makes faces behind the back of the department chair, steals a taxi from one of the more genial professors, and is aware of the absurdity of an article he is trying to publish, which has the farcical title, ” The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

How could I not laugh? Kingsley Amis was an “angry young man.”  Jim is an angry young man. Jim’s article is tripe.

I reread Lucky Jim for a peculiar reason: Patricia Meyer Spacks trashed it in her fascinating book, On Rereading.

Spacks on Rereading 41ePBMKeIOL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Spacks’s vigorous, opinionated book is worth a look for the brilliant essay on Jane Austen’s Emma, but her readings of many twentieth-century novels are conservative.  Yes, she likes P. G. Wodehouse, but she dismisses Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as anti-male, hates J. D. Salinger’s classic, Catcher in the Rye, and deems Lucky Jim unfunny.  These three novels all challenge the assumptions of a capitalist society.

I’m wondering if Spacks so disliked Lucky Jim because it ridicules her profession.  She is the Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia.

Amis’s entire novel is hysterically funny, but I especially like the scenes at the department chair Professor Welch’s arty weekend. They are expected to sing part-songs and madrigals, read a French play aloud (Jim has an odd accent), and watch a demonstration of sword-dance steps.

Although the other participants sing along jovially, Jim is unhappy.

Dixon ran his eyes along the lines of black dots, which seemed to go up and down a good deal, and was able to assure himself that everyone was going to have to sing all the time.  He’d had a bad setback twenty minutes ago in some Brahms rubbish which began with some ten seconds of unsupported tenor–more accurately, of unsupported Goldsmith, who’d twice dried up in face of a tricky interval and left him opening and shutting his mouth in silence….  Why hadn’t they had the decency to ask him if he wanted to join in, instead of driving him up on to this platform arrangement and forcing sheets of paper into his hand.

Jim escapes to the pub after a quarrel with Welch’s son, Bernard, a pompous artist. He is drunk when he returns.

I  had a similar, though less traumatic, experience as a young woman.  I was invited (I hope kindly) to a sophisticated colleague’s party.  We stood around the piano singing Gilbert and Sullivan.  It was a nightmare.

I can’t sing.  I grew up on the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Not a single Gilbert and Sullivan record in the house.  Nope.   I drank three imported beers.  This was frowned upon.  Perhaps those three beers were for the entire party!

Lucky Jim Amis penguin 0002It is not just Amis’s satire of academia that amuses me, but Jim’s alienation of those with control over his teaching contract.  Most of us have had jobs we don’t care for.  I wonder from Spacks’s criticism if we are allowed to admit this anymore.

And then there is the episode of the burnt sheets.

After Jim returns from the pub, he falls asleep while smoking.  When he awakes, he finds  he has burned holes in Mrs. Welch’s sheets, the blanket, the rug, and a table.  He cuts the holes into rectangles.  Despairingly, he shows the damage to Bertrand’s girlfriend, Christine, who laughs as she helps him smuggle the table into a storeroom.

Will Jim’s contract be renewed?

Such a charming, hilarious book!