Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ |

Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’

by Jenny Shank for High Country News

Lucia Berlin was a Western writer of rare brilliance. When she died in Marina del Rey, California, in 2004, her fans were ardent, but few in number, perhaps because she wrote short stories and published her six collections with small presses. Her final three books appeared under the imprint of Black Sparrow Press, a California publisher known for featuring legendary outsiders like Charles Bukowski and John Fante. Berlin’s work is at least the equal of theirs.

Berlin’s admirers have long worked to keep her writing in front of readers, and now, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published a posthumous selection of her work, “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” that demonstrates her mastery of the short story form. Berlin’s stories, many of them semi-autobiographical, create indelible portraits of 20th-century Western communities, generally seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of people on the margins — neglected children in mining camps, alcoholics on the streets of Oakland, and Mexican immigrant patients at subsidized medical clinics.

Describing the subjects of Berlin’s stories can make her sound like a connoisseur of misery — but in fact, beauty, grace and humor are the resonant notes in her work, no matter how many minor chords she plays to achieve them. Take, for example, this scene from “Emergency Room Notebook 1977,” in which the narrator sits on a bus with a blind man whose wife has just died. “He was very funny, describing his new, messy roommate at the Hilltop House for the Blind. I couldn’t imagine how he could know his roommate was messy, but then I could and told him my Marx Brothers idea of two blind roommates — shaving cream on the spaghetti, slipping on spilled stuffaroni, etc. We laughed and were silent, holding hands … from Pleasant Valley to Alcatraz Avenue. He cried, softly. My tears were for my own loneliness, my own blindness.”