Tag Archives: Lucia Berlin

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover imageI owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Books to Look Out for in November 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI began my first selection of November’s new titles with what will undoubtedly be a big hitter: Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. This one kicks off with a book that its publishers are clearly hoping will also be jumping off the shelves into customers’ open arms – William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer, dubbed by the New Yorker ‘the lost giant of American literature’ which has been appearing in my Twitter feed for months. Set in the smalltown South, it opens in 1957 when a young black man destroys his farm and livestock before leaving the state, swiftly followed by the entire African-American population. First published in 1962, ‘A Different Drummer is an exploration of what it is like to live in a white-dominated society. It’s a transparent, brutally honest portrayal of the impact and repercussions of systematized oppression; with a culmination as unflinching and unrivalled as its author’s insights’ say the publishers, hoping for a Stoner-like bestseller, I’m sure

Lucia Berlin’s superb collection A Manual for Cleaning Women was also heralded as a lost classic, comprising stories stretching back into the ‘60s. Those of us who thought that might be the last of Berlin, who died in 2004, have an unexpected treat to look forward to with Evening in Paradise which takes us from Texas to Chile, from New Mexico to New York. ‘Evening in Paradise is a careful selection from Lucia Berlin’s remaining stories – a jewel box follow-up for her hungry fans’ say the publishers whetting our appetites nicely.

Louisa Hall’s Trinity is about Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb, told from the perspective of seven fictional characters and revealing the contradictory character of this brilliant scientist. ‘Blending science with literature and fiction with biography, Trinity asks searing questions about what it means to truly know someone, and about the secrets we keep from the world and from ourselves’ according to the blurb. It sounds fascinating. I’ve not read much fiction about the development of the bomb which shaped the second half of the twentieth century apart from The Wives of Los Alamos, Lydia Millett’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos. Cover image

It seems fitting to end with what’s being billed as a pacifist novel after that. Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth begins in the remote Carpathian mountains where Piotr’s limited ambitions are fixed on a job with the railway, a cottage and a bride with a dowry until he finds himself drafted into the army to fight in the First World War. ‘In a new translation, authorised by the author’s daughter, The Salt of the Earth is a strongly pacifist novel inspired by the Odyssey, about the consequences of war on ordinary men’ say the publishers, landing us back where we started in rediscovered classic territory.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your interest and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

 

Five Short Story Collections I’ve Read

This is an idea I spotted it over at Kim’s Reading Matters blog and thought I’d pinch it having  enjoyed digging out books I’ve loved for my Blasts from the Past series so much. The plan is to periodically post five short thematically linked reviews, kicking off with short story collections.

There was a time when I pushed short stories firmly away, making the occasional exception for collections by favourite writers who’d not produced a novel for a while. Then I found myself picking up linked sets of stories until eventually I became persuaded that it might be worth reading a collection for its own sake. I very much doubt that short stories will take precedence over novels for me but it seems I’ve gone some way along the road to conversion. Excellent reading while travelling, too.

Cover imageHere are five of my favourite collections, all but one with links to a full review.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is one of the first linked collections I read, way back at the turn of the century. Melissa Bank’s book follows Jane Rosenal through the trials and tribulations of being newly grown up in America, from sex, love and relationships to navigating the workplace. Smart and funny, these stories are hugely enjoyable.

The stories in Anna Noyes’ Goodnight, Beautiful Women are also linked, sharing the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are all recurring themes. Noyes’ women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean.

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women draws heavily on her own rackety, vivid life which ended in 2004: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. There’s an immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from a graphic, panicky tooth extraction to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Her observation is sharp and her matter-of-fact economy makes its impact all the more striking.

Written with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception, the thirteen stories that comprise The Virginity of Famous Men explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. From a woman’s reflections on marriage to a handsome movie star and the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire, to a young man who may finally have emerged from the Cover imageshadow of his father’s celebrity, Christine Sneed’s collection demonstrates a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavened with a dash of humour.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over a period of twenty years, the eight stories that make up Nguyen’s The Refugees  explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative pieces which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic.

Any short story collections you’d like to recommend?

Six Degrees of Separation – from Shopgirl to Shotgun Lovesongs #6Degrees

I’m not one for memes but Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best, is one I’ve come to eagerly anticipate on other blogs so I thought I’d stick my toe in the water. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one preceding it.

Cover montage

This month’s starting point is Steve Martin’s Shopgirl which I’ve not read but the Goodreads synopsis tells me that it’s about a lonely young woman selling expensive evening  gloves in a department store who tries to form a relationship with an ageing rich Lothario while shrugging off the attentions of an awkward slacker. Feelings about the book seem to be mixed but it doesn’t sound like the barrel of laughs one might expect from a novel by a comedian.

Like Steve Martin, David Baddiel is known to many as a comic, a familiar face from the ‘90s BBC comedy show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience. He now channels his writing talent into children’s books but his first novel, Whatever Love Means, which I’ve not read either, was aimed at adults. It’s described by the publisher as ‘part-satire, part-love story, part-whodunnit, and part-meditation on the nature of sex and death’.

Earlier this year Baddiel took part in a documentary about his father’s dementia which leads me to Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, a riveting thriller told from the point of view of a demented narrator. McFarlane won the Dylan Thomas Prize for her collection of short stories, The High Places last month. I’m a recent short stories convert and my fourth book is one which played a large part in that conversion

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. draws heavily on her own rackety life: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. This collection drew lots of attention when it was published in 2015 but Berlin, who died in 2004, had been quietly writing since the ‘60s so you could describe her stories as rediscovered classics which leads me to John Williams’ Stoner.

First published in 1965 Stoner became that wonderful thing a word-of-mouth bestseller when it was re-issued a few years ago. It’s a lovely elegiac novel about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life, written in quietly graceful prose. Stoner is an academic, the main protagonist of a campus novel which leads me to Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

Russo’s Hank Devereaux is very different from Williams’ Stoner. Slap in the middle of a mid-life crisis, Hank is also caught up in campus politics, trying to cope with a teenage daughter and juggling a complicated love life. Things go horribly and quite hilariously wrong for Hank – there’s one scene in which had me almost crying with laughter.

Russo is known for his American small town novels, another weakness of mine. One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years with this sort of backdrop is Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, a gorgeous, tender novel about love and friendship, set against in Little Wing, Wisconsin.

So endeth my first but I hope not my last Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from selling gloves in a department store to broken hearts in small town America. I hope I’ve got the hang of it but I’ve a feeling this may get easier with practice. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2016

Cover imageSeveral jewels to look out for in August’s paperback crown, starting with one of the best books I’ve read this year: Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back. It’s the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with her daughter. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. That may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Lucia Berlin would have been all too familiar with the seamier side of work, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her stories which draw heavily on her own life, was published last year to enormous and well deserved acclaim. There’s a striking immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Without wanting to be a proselytising zealot, I’ll just say that this collection played a large part in converting me to the pleasure of reading short stories.

Written in a lighthearted, mischievous style Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See is Cover imageentirely different but succeeds in delivering quite a punch. When he hears a knock at his door, twenty-year-old Arthur Drefuss hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure as she is on-screen. Of course it’s nor Ms Johansson who, it turns out, didn’t like the idea of this book at all, managing to delay its publication for quite some time. Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness in this fable-like novel which puts our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire in an unflattering spotlight. It’s a little gem.

I’ve yet to get my hands on the following four starting with Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. Anais, the main protagonist of Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with this one which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

I tend not to be a fan of historical novels, either, but Naomi J. Williams’ debut Landfalls has a very attractive structure. Set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785 on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery returning four years later, it’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay, where tragedy hits, to St Petersburg. It all sounds very ambitious but if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

The Private Life of Mrs SharmaMy last August choice is here thanks to Naomi’s description of it as ‘as close to perfect as it gets’ over at The Writes of Women. In Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Renuka keeps the household afloat while her husband works in Dubai. All seems on track for her aspirations to the New Indian Dream until she finds herself chatting to a stranger, wondering if it might not be time to shrug off the calls of duty a little. The publishers describe it as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity, from a dramatic new voice in Indian fiction’ but you might like to take a look at Naomi’s review.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first three, to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis for the next two and to The Writes of Women for Naomi’s review of the last one. And if you want to catch up with August’s hardback delights they’re here and here.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin: Saving some for later

Cover imageLucia Berlin’s short story collection seem to be everywhere at the moment – her beautiful face shines out from broadsheet reviews, her book sits at the front of every bookshop I’ve been in recently – yet her work isn’t new. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. Previously published by a small press, it’s as if a well-kept secret has suddenly been revealed. I’ve read about half of the collection – there are forty-three stories in all – but they’re not to be gulped down. I’m taking a little break and collecting my thoughts on the ones I’ve read, planning to read the rest a little more slowly.

The collection comes complete with an introduction by Stephen Emerson – Berlin’s editor and dear friend – a short biographical note and a foreword by Lydia Davis, herself no slouch in the short story department according to those who know more about these things than I do. From these three pieces it’s clear that Berlin drew heavily on her own life when writing her stories and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. Here’s a flavour of her stories’ rich diversity: a young girl helps her dentist grandfather extract all his teeth, replacing them with his masterpiece – a perfect replica – in ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’; the eponymous story sees a cleaner mentally running through her clients on the bus route home, tossing in helpfully bracketed tips to her colleagues; a woman speculates on why Sundays are so hard to write about in ‘Points of View’; a nursing assistant tenderly cradles a jockey’s broken body in ‘My Jockey’; a women in love with the idea of romance finds out more than she bargained for in ‘Melina’; in ‘Unmanageable’ a mother, desperate for alcohol, is treated with poignant kindness then returns home to her thirteen-year-old son who has been driven to confiscating her wallet and her car keys.

Both Davis and Emerson have written far more eloquently about Berlin’s writing in their introductory essays than I can. Its pared back nature is what appeals to me. There’s an immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Her observation is sharp and her matter-of-fact economy makes its impact all the more striking: ‘Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.’ perfectly conveys the deadening boredom and exhaustion of the dispossessed and the likely downward spiral of their fortunes. ‘I’m having a hard time writing about Sunday. Getting the long hollow feeling of Sundays. No mail and faraway lawn mowers, the hopelessness’ brings us up short in what had appeared a playful story about choosing a narrator’s point of view. It’s quite a feast and for now I’m sated but I’ll be back for second helpings.