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.
If 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.
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.