A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

The American short-story writer Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. More than seventy of her stories were published during her lifetime, mostly in collections issued in the 1980s and ‘90s from small presses such as Turtle Island and Black Sparrow Press. Now, more than a decade after her death, Berlin and her work are reaching a much wider audience courtesy of this collection of forty-three of her pieces, A Manual for Cleaning Women, brought to us by the team at Picador. This is a wonderful set of short stories, so raw and striking that I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll read a better collection all year.

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Lucia Berlin seems to have lived many lives during her time, and her work draws heavily on various experiences from her lonely and unhappy childhood right through to her more settled old age. Before the war, Berlin’s father worked in the mining industry; consequently, the family moved around a fair bit, spending time in Idaho, Kentucky and Montana. When her husband went off to the war, Berlin’s mother took Lucia and her younger sister to live with their grandparents in El Paso – Mamie and Grandpa both feature in a number of the stories included here, as do other members of the Berlin family, most notably Lucia’s sister.

Berlin grew up fast. By her early thirties, she had been married and divorced three times and was raising four sons more or less on her own. During her lifetime she worked as a high school teacher, a cleaning woman, a switchboard operator, and a hospital ward clerk. As a young mother, she struggled with alcoholism, finally overcoming her addiction later in life. She lived in Chile, New York and Oakland; then in the early nineties, she spent the best part of two years in Mexico City, caring for her sister who was dying of cancer. (Berlin’s mother died in the mid-eighties, a possible suicide.)

I mention these events because they have a direct bearing on Berlin’s work. Her stories are little slices of life, vignettes drawn from her own remarkable experiences. With more than forty pieces in this collection, it’s going to be impossible for me to cover even half of these stories. My aim instead is to give you a flavour of the collection, primarily Berlin’s style and a few of her key themes.

In the titular story, the narrator, a domestic cleaner, offers a kind of guide to others performing the same role in similar households. It’s a blend of advice to cleaning women – ‘never make friends with cats, don’t let them play with the mop, the rags. The ladies will get jealous.’ – and reflections on the various employers the cleaner encounters. Here’s the narrator on the Blums, both of whom are psychiatrists, marriage counsellors with two adopted pre-school children. (The narrator has already warned us of the perils of young kids: ‘Never work in a house with “preschoolers.” Babies are great. You can spend hours looking at them, holding them. But the older ones…you get shrieks, dried Cheerios, accidents hardened and walked on in the Snoopy pyjama foot.’)

The Blums have a lot of pills, a plethora of pills. She has uppers, he has downers. Mr. Dr. Blum has belladonna pills. I don’t know what they do but I wish it was my name.

One morning I heard him say to her, in the breakfast nook, “Let’s do something spontaneous today, take the kids to go fly a kite!”

My heart went out to him. Part of me wanted to rush in like the maid in the back of Saturday Evening Post. I make great kites, know good places in Tilden for wind. There is no wind in Montclair. The other part of me turned on the vacuum so I couldn’t hear her reply. It was pouring rain outside. (pg. 32)

Alongside these acute observations, the narrator reflects on her lost lover, Ter, a young cowboy from Nebraska. These passages are indicative of the deep sense of loss and loneliness that runs through several of Berlin’s stories.

Once he told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue.

He was like the Berkeley dump. I wish there was a bus to the dump. We went there when we got homesick for New Mexico. It is stark and windy and gulls soar like nighthawks in the desert. You can see the sky all around you and above you. Garbage trucks thunder through dust-billowing roads. Gray dinosaurs. (pg. 33)

Unsurprisingly, given the background I mentioned earlier, much of Berlin’s work features women trying dealing with the harsh realities of their fractured lives. We meet a bright but lonely young girl struggling to adjust to a new school; a mother so desperate for her next drink that she leaves her children unattended in bed while she goes in search of alcohol; a young addict experiencing her first detox in a hospital; there are many more, several are heartbreaking.

Some of these stories are set in the places we’d rather not think about too often: prisons, backstreet abortion clinics, detox wards and emergency rooms. In Mijito, one of the most haunting pieces in this collection, a ward clerk/nurse describes how she copes with the suffering she encounters in her work.

When I go out there I sort of cross my eyes, and when I call the patient’s name I smile at the mother or grandmother or foster care mom but I look at a third eye in their forehead. I learned this in Emergency. It’s the only way to work here, especially with all the crack babies and AIDS and cancer babies. Or the ones who will never grow up. If you look the parent in the eyes you will share it, confirm it, all the fear and exhaustion and pain. On the other hand once you get to know them, sometimes that’s all you can do, look into their eyes with the hope or sorrow you can’t express. (pg. 335)

By now you’re probably thinking that this all sounds terribly grim. Yes, these stories explore pretty harrowing territory, but the flashes of wry humour in Berlin’s work help to balance the tone often providing some much-needed relief from the bleakness of the protagonist’s situation. In Angel’s Laundromat, the narrator, a woman living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, describes why she goes to Angel’s, a down-at-heel launderette frequented by old women, travelling people, teenage Chicana brides and Pueblo Indians. I loved the final lines in this passage.

I go to Angel’s. I’m not sure why, it’s not just the Indians. It’s across the town from me. Only a block away is the Campus, air-conditioned, soft rock on the Muzak. New Yorker, Ms., and Cosmopolitan. Wives of graduate assistants go there and buy their kids Zero bars and Cokes. The Campus laundry has a sign, like most laundries do, POSITIVELY NO DYEING. I drove all over town with a green bedspread until I came to Angel’s with his yellow sign, YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME. (pgs. 5-6)

There are other moments of brightness, too: stories drawn from Berlin’s time with the men in her life, two of whom were jazz musicians; pieces featuring her cousin, the beautiful Bella Lynn; stories of her reconnection with Sally, the sister she nursed through the final stages of cancer. These pieces are compassionate, graceful and emotionally truthful; the writing is shot through with little insights about life. In Wait a Minute, the narrator is reflecting on what happens to time when a loved one dies. Time stops for the person who has passed away, but for those who are left behind it runs amok, disrupting the normal rhythms of their days and nights.

The bad part is that when you return to your ordinary life all the routines, the marks of the day, seem like senseless lies. All is suspect, a trick to lull us, rock us back into the placid relentlessness of time. (pg. 380)

There are some truly remarkable pieces in this collection, several of which reminded me of the work of Raymond Carver and Joan Didion. Sometimes when I read short stories, I can sense the author’s hand on the tiller, driving the narrative in a certain direction, engineering events and developments towards a pre-determined outcome. There is none of that sense of deliberate construction or artificiality here. Berlin’s stories are natural, free-flowing and fluid; they feel grounded in authenticity and truth.

I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage that illustrates Berlin’s skill in capturing a strong sense of place in her writing. Her descriptions are thick with the sights, smells and sounds of her locations, making it easy for the reader to visualise these scenes in their mind. In this excerpt from Tiger Bites, the narrator is returning to Mexico, a place that hums with activity.

We came to the bridge and the smell of Mexico. Smoke and chili and beer. Carnations and candles and kerosene. Oranges and Delicados and urine. I buzzed the window down and hung my head out, glad to be home. Church bells, ranchera music, bebop jazz, mambos. Christmas carols from the tourist shops. Rattling exhaust pipes, honkings, drunken American soldiers from Fort Bliss. El Paso matrons, serious shoppers, carrying piñatas and jugs of rum. (pg. 75)

For another perspective on this very impressive collection, click here for Gert Loveday’s review.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is published by Picador – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a copy for review.

57 thoughts on “A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

  1. MarinaSofia

    You have certainly succeeded in giving us a flavour of Lucia Berlin’s style – and it does sound rather like the sort of thing I like to read. I’ve heard good things about this collection, and I had no idea they were based on her own chaotic life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s what makes these stories so startling. They feel so real and ‘unpolished’ if that makes sense, almost as though we are being given little glimpses of her life. I know you’re generally not a huge fan of short stories, but this collection is definitely worthy of consideration. I think you’d like Berlin’s writing.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, right! My mistake – sorry. I’d got it into my head that you weren’t too keen on short stories. Well, if you ever fancy dipping in and out of a collection then it’s a good one to have to hand.

          Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui. I’d heard of this collection but you’ve really succeeded in getting across what it’s like. Her life does sound rather eventful and I could see why she would draw on it for her stories. Definitely one I’ll watch out for!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I do find it difficult to review short stories, especially when a collection contains so many different pieces. I think these stories are very different from the types of literature you usually read, but if you fancy something different then they’re definitely worth considering. We’re in Raymond Carver territory here (at least to some extent), so it depends how you feel about him and other writers of his ilk. Joan Didion also came to mind as I was reading some of the stories, especially her novel Play It As It Lays.

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I like Didion’s non-fiction a lot, though I’ve not yet stayed into her fiction – though I think I have some on the shelves. I don’t mind stepping outside of my comfort zone sometimes! :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great. I’ve yet to make a proper start on Didion’s non-fiction, although I have read ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’ which appears in one of her collections.

          Reply
  3. naomifrisby

    This is sitting on my shelf still so I skimmed your review, Jacqui, but your introductory paragraph and comparisons to Didion and
    Carver are enough to convince me I should read it soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great – I can’t wait to hear what you think of it! I’m not the first person to make the comparison with Carver, but there are touches of Joan Didion here too. I’m pretty sure you’ll love these stories.

      Reply
  4. susanosborne55

    There was so much hype surrounding this collection when it came out that I was prepared for disappointment but it’s wonderful. Berlin’s short, crisp sentences coupled with an acute observation result in some very striking stories as you’ve illustrated beautifully in your review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, I recall seeing some positive mentions of it on Twitter at the back end of last year (possibly around the time of the holidays as a couple of people I follow must have been reading it over Xmas). I usually stay away from the buzz books, but something about this collection appealed to me. Her observations are wonderful, aren’t they? The sorts of moments that could only have come from personal experience. Did you review it, Susan? I’ll head over to yours in a while to take a look.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I only really discovered her last year when I read a review of this collection in The Guardian. All credit to Picador for reissuing these remarkable stories.

      Reply
  5. gertloveday

    I was so startled by the story about her grandfather the dentist. It gave me that shiver down the spine you get when you’re in the presence of something remarkable. I probably thought the collection was a bit more uneven than you did, and my overall impression is more weighted towards her humour, but like you, I particularly liked the feeling that the story is flowing naturally and not being forced and managed.
    Thanks for the link!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome – it’s interesting to compare perspectives with you now! I loved the humour in some of these pieces, particularly the early ones. My lasting impression may well be a little skewed towards this picture of a woman on the edge. I found some of the stories very haunting indeed. Mijito keeps coming back to me (as does the one involving the alcoholic mother), so I suspect some of them will stay with me for quite some time!

      Reply
  6. lonesomereadereric

    This is great to read! I’ve been wanting to get to this much-talked about book for a while and, while it’s been in the periphery of my vision, I’ve never looking into her bio or what her stories are about. So interesting reading about her background and how that translates into her fiction. It’s wonderful to hear you think so highly of her writing because I’ve read criticism about her stories as well. They do sound like the kind of fiction I’d love though! Thanks for the review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to be of service, Eric! There’s plenty of information about Berlin’s life at the beginning of the book as it comes with a foreword by Lydia Davis and an intro by Stephen Emerson who compiled the stories for this book. Plus there’s a brief bio at the end of the collection. It all feels very relevant to her work, so it’s useful context to set the scene for what comes through in her stories. I’d love to hear what you think of this one. Can you recall what the criticisms were? It’s always interesting to hear an opposing view or another perspective on something like this.

      Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    I had never heard of Lucia Berlin. She sound as if she had an eventful life. As you allude to her experiences seem like they influenced her writings. The grimness that you mention is not surprising.

    I would like to give this a read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s quite a lot about Berlin’s life in the foreword and intro, plus a brief bio at the end. Apparently one of her sons said, after her death, “Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.” There’s a sense of family stories being used as a foundation for her work with pieces being sliced, shaped and added to here and there. Some of them came from her imagination but even so there is something truthful about the situations and emotions she describes. They feel very authentic if that makes sense.

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    Curiously, I first heard of Lucia Berlin just yesterday, when I received an email announcement of a sale of bunch of rare books (I don’t know how I get on these lists), among which were several by Berlin. The comparison to Didion intrigues me – that to Carver maybe not so much. And that title – is it “Cleaning Women” or “Cleaning Women” or both, or is that just a stupid question?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely – that’s serendipity in action for you! I’d say she’s probably closer to Carver than to Didion, although a couple of the stories in particular reminded me very strongly of Play it As It Lays. She’s definitely worth a look. As for the title, no it’s not a stupid question at all. In fact someone else raised a similar point on Twitter when I shared a link earlier today. (I hadn’t even thought about the different ways of interpreting the title until it was mentioned this morning!) As far as the titular story goes it’s the latter, but there’s a touch of the first version across the collection as a whole, especially once you discover that a few of the pieces are set in a detox clinic.

      Reply
  9. poppypeacockpens

    I’ve been dipping into this wonderful collection since receiving a copy last year; whilst I could have easily devoured it I’ve manage restraint and leaving time between each fix is certainly helping me digest the stories and appreciate the superb writing… you certainly captured this quality and the essence of her stories well Jacqui. Great review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! That’s fantastic. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been relishing these stories too as they struck me as being right up your alley. It’s all too easy to overdose on short stories, gobbling them up one after another as you read through a collection. I tried to read just one or two a day over the course of a few weeks, and even that felt quite heavy at times. It takes a while for them to sink in. Such a striking collection of pieces.

      Reply
  10. Naomi

    This is a collection that I’ve had my eye on for a while now. I’ve heard lots of good things. It sounds like her own life would make a good novel – I am always in awe of people who live life so hard..

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great stuff. It does seem to have captured the imagination of quite a few people. (My Twitter feed lit up when I tweeted a link this morning!)

      Yes, me too. She had a tough time of it, especially in the early years. In some ways, you could probably view this as a loosely fictionalised version of Berlin’s life. Even though it’s a collection short stories, when the pieces are viewed together they paint quite a picture.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m really glad you like the quotes. The writing is excellent, very natural and unpolished (in a good way). Her life was tough and full of incident, so she had plenty of material to turn to for her stories. It’s good to hear that you’ve seen it around and about as her work deserves a wide audience. I hope many more readers discover her stories.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! That’s only half of it too. She’s good at capturing the vividness of a scene. That’s fair enough about the short stories – I recall you saying you were a bit full up with short fiction when I reviewed that Sciascia collection a month or so ago. (Go for one of his novellas instead. :-))

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    Great review. I’ve heard so many good things about this, I’ve wanted it since it came out . Sadly it’s fallen victim to simply not having enough time to read all I’d like to, but I’m sure I will get to it some day.
    (To be honest, if I read all day, everyday, I still wouldn’t be able to read everything I want to!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. I think it’s worth making the time for this one. Berlin’s life was tough, unconventional and full of incident. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on her stories!

      Reply
  12. Anokatony

    I read the first story of this collection and was not impressed. That first story seemed a little too rough, simple, and primitive. I gave up on the book, but the praise from reviewers like you continues. I’m wondering if perhaps the stories are published in chronological order, and that first story was an early effort. I’m about this close to giving the collection another try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Give it another try, Anokatony! I think it’s worth reading at least six or seven of these stories just to get a better feel for her work. (I’d suggest you include the title story, Tiger Bites, and Mojito in that group – if you’re not feeling it after reading these pieces then she’s probably not the writer for you.) There aren’t any notes on the publication dates of the individual stories, so it’s hard to say if they’ve been collected together in chronological order. It’s possible, but I don’t know for sure. They are quite raw and unpolished, though. I must admit to liking that aspect as they felt very natural and authentic to me, so maybe it’s just a question of personal tastes!

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Tony, just wanted to let you know that Stephen Emerson (who edited this collection of Lucia Berlin’s stories) dropped by with some information on the order of the pieces in the book. Angel’s Laundromat (the first story in the book) is one of her early ones, but you might want to read Stephen’s response for more details. There’s a link here – hope this works:

      https://jacquiwine.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/a-manual-for-cleaning-women-by-lucia-berlin/comment-page-1/#comment-6578

      Reply
      1. Anokatony

        It worked. Knowing that the stories I pretty much arranged chronologically, I will start with a middle story to get a more representative story to read first.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know what you mean about wanting more from shorts – sometimes they stop just as you’re getting into the story! There are two or three sizeable pieces in this collection, but most of them are quite brief (fewer than ten pages apiece). That said, she packs a lot into some of these stories, so I hope you like them if you do decide to give her a try. :)

      Reply
  13. A Little Blog of Books

    It’s been a while since I read a really memorable collection of short stories but I really like the sound of Berlin’s work. It’s good to hear that her stories don’t feel artificial in any way too – I’ll definitely check these out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great. I’ll be interested to see what you think of them. The absence of any deliberate ‘framework’ was one of the things I liked most about these stories. They feel so natural, almost as though you are reading excepts from Berlin’s notebook or journal.

      Reply
  14. erdeaka

    Hi, Jacqui! How are you? What a wonderful review on an intriguing short story collection. I’ve been so curious about this book because of the title. I even thought… “what kind of story having such title?” But, having read your review, I think it’s a truly worth-a-try book. Oh, can I assume that it’s the best point to start if we want to get to know Lucia Berlin? All the stories you told here seem personal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Ratih. I’m good, thanks. Hope all is well with you. I was intrigued by the title of this book too. Rather unconventional in many respects, but it works very well with the story (and the collection as a whole). Yes, this would be the place to start if you’d like to get to know Lucia Berlin as the stories have been taken from a number of different collections first published in the 1980s and ’90. I suspect it’s a bit like a ‘greatest hits’ album with her best stories collected together in one volume. :)

      Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Stephen Emerson

    You’ve done a splendid job here. A great evocation of the range and merits of the writing. The mere fact of your work is a considerable tribute. If not too presumptuous — thank you. Re: Anokatony’s question: “Angel’s Laundromat” is the title story from Lucia’s first collection; the piece first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1976 (a rare mainstream publication for her). She later placed it at the start of the first “new and selected stories” volume from Black Sparrow. The very earliest story in A MANUAL is “El Tim,” from the early 1960s but the collection is still loosely by order of composition, with some exceptions she made herself in ordering the Black Sparrow books, and some that I made.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my review – I really do appreciate it. Berlin’s stories felt so fresh and striking to me that I really wanted to do them justice in my piece (or at least to try to as far as possible). Thanks also for your response to Anokatony’s question about the order of the stories – that makes perfect sense. I’ll let him know that you’ve provided this information about the sequencing. Thanks once again for taking the time to drop by.

      Reply
  17. Pingback: ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin | Tony's Book World

  18. Emma

    Catching up on posts sitting in my inbox
    Great review. I’ve never heard of her but the comparison to Didion and the quotes you picked appeal to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks for keeping it. It’s always nice to receive a comment on a slightly older post. :)

      I’d never heard of Berlin until this collection of stories appeared last year. The stories are unusual, and I loved their unvarnished, organic nature. Her prose style is less precise than Didion’s, but there are some similarities. Funnily enough, I’m currently reading another writer with a link to Didion: Eve Babitz. The book — Eve’s Hollywood — includes a ‘thank you’ to Didion and her husband (one of several acknowledgements). She could be another soul sister to Joan…

      Reply
  19. Pingback: Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics) | JacquiWine's Journal

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