Book Review: A Manual for Cleaning Women

I think that A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin took me so long to read because it is a book of short stories. In a way, there are no cliffhangers to keep the pages turning between the stories. But how about that title? I love it. Is it a manual for cleaning women to use, or is it a manual for how to clean women? Or is it for us to use when dealing with cleaning women? The title actually had a whiff of sci-fi for me—are these cleaning women robots?—but that’s not at all what it is. “A Manual for Cleaning Women” is the title of one of the (best) short stories in the book and also a great dual-meaning title for what we are about to read.

Manual is a posthumous collection. Lucia Berlin was a short story writer who wrote from the 60s until her death in 2004. She was published in some big places and many small places and her works were largely compiled into three volumes in the 90s. Manual is a 2015 compilation of the best by her estate. It was a New York Times Bestseller and was named One of the 10 Best of the year by the NYT Book Review. I had some short-story-writer friends who read it and recommended it and it appeared on the Best-ofs List that I made for short stories. And that title! Also the cover is pretty good.

While I expected a book from 2015 to be more modern, these are mostly retro stories. Many of them smack of the last century. And no one told me what this book really is: a memoir. It’s not really, but by the time you’ve read the book and get to the actual biography at the back, you already know everything that is there. How? Because her stories are—as far as a reader can tell—all about her. She retains the place names, the names of people, etc. in most of them at least. She writes largely about her own battle with alcoholism, working in various clinics and doctor’s offices, her many random jobs while being a single mother, her dealing with her sister’s slow death from cancer. These are her life themes, and they all clearly come straight from her own life. So while the stories may have been published as fiction and may have been embellished or fictionalized (were they?), her stories are basically a blood-let from her own most troubling experiences. It appears, in fact, that she spent whole eras of her career dealing with the different subjects. It might prove interesting to view this book as a novel in short stories based on the author’s life. Then you can watch as the details unravel in what is a quite brilliant organization (not chronological, but a slow unfurling of different parts, then a repeating, and then a weaving together and an end). (It is a little front- and back-loaded, but what book isn’t?)

So, yes, this is a book of short stories about alcoholism, death, parents, siblings, motherhood, medicine, poverty and race relations, abuse, illness, deformity, a few other things. That sounds like a real drag and at times it is, but it is also an extremely humanizing book, and for that it is worth the read. I enjoyed this book. It’s not really the style I gravitate toward, but it is admirable in many ways. Berlin is certainly honest, in fact raw. She gives us a window into a lifetime, into the Southwest in the 70s, Mexico City in the nineties, mining towns in the 60s, alcoholism in all its stages and as a single, white woman in California, etc. It really makes the reader think, questions a lot of prejudgments and expectations. And her writing is usually clear and engaging, occasionally poetic and sage, and always steeped in unique sensory detail and feeling. And humanity. For sure. Her style is generally straightforward, but she does occasionally surprise: an unexpected ending, two contrary perspectives, a fantasy lived in the memory, etc. There is a laser focus here, a closeness that can leave you gasping for air.

My favorites of the stories:

  • Dr. H. A. Moynihan (but gross and disturbing)
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women*
  • Mr. Jockey
  • El Tim
  • Point of View*
  • Her First Detox*
  • Phantom Pain*
  • La Vie en Rose
  • Panteon de Delores*
  • A Love Affair
  • Mama
  • Silence (yikes)
  • Mijito (sad and a bit over-said, but great set-up)
  • Here It Is Saturday
  • Wait a Minute

And some quotes:

“Always, as I silenced their mirthless laughter, I thought of the giggles, the shouts, the grade school counterpoint of joy” (p44).

“I don’t know what DTs are. The doctor asked me that too. I said yes and he wrote it down. I think I’ve had them all my life, if, in fact, they are visions of demons” (p58).

“Can you hear all those sirens in the background, in the middle of the night? More than one of them is going to pick up some old guy who ran out of Gallo port” (p93).

“There was nobody I could talk to about any of this, nobody to ask what was right or wrong, so I just felt wrong” (p133).

“…the stereo of our visions” (p228).

“Her shout when she spied a pink rocket flower in the alley behind the hospital” (p264).

“Silence can be wicked, plumb wicked” (p329).

“Today a western tanager sat on a branch in my backyard. My cat Cosmo was asleep in the sun so he didn’t chase it” (p357).

“Anything you can say about prison is a cliché. Humiliation. The waiting, the brutality, the stench, the food, the endlessness. No way to describe the incessant earsplitting noise” (p364).

“What love might there have been I didn’t feel?” (p389).

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