Archive for November, 2017

A Manual For Cleaning Women : Selected Stories / Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, published three short story collections during her lifetime, some of which were published in various magazines over the years. Even so, she was not an author familiar to most readers. A Manual For Cleaning Women, a selection of her stories, a posthumous publication, seeks to introduce her to a wider audience.

While her stories are written in an unadorned, conversational style, her keen eye for detail enriches each of the ones included here. And a good many of them contain shifts and surprises at their end that are both unexpected and yet the perfect conclusion.

These stories were inspired by her childhood spent in various mining communities (Alaska, New Mexico, Chile, and Mexico). A bigger influence is her family’s history of alcoholism, a condition she battled as well (successfully for the last ten years of her life). Almost all of the stories in this collection are based on events in her own life. With such a rich history to draw upon, her subject matter is broad and fascinating.

In the years between 1971-1994, Berlin worked as a high school teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman, and physician assistant. At the same time, she had three husbands, four sons, and battled alcoholism. Amazingly, she also found time to publish seventy-six short stories during her lifetime. In them, she captures not only the complexity of her own life, but the humor and melancholy of our shared time upon this earth. Without a doubt, her work deserves this reintroduction.

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The Whites / Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt

One might think that this novel’s title is a racial term. Rather, in New York City police jargon, it represents a lawbreaker who has committed a heinous crime and “walked away untouched by justice.” And, in this story at least, detectives who have worked a crime scene have at least one White who continues to haunt them long after the case has been closed.

Billy Graves is a sergeant in his early forties who works in the Manhattan Night Watch, a small team of detectives who respond to the post-midnight felonies from Wall Street to Harlem. Graves has been assigned this graveyard shift after accidentally shooting a ten-year-old while struggling with a coke-crazed individual on a crowded street. At that time, he was part of an aggressive anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese.

Years after that event, and married with two children, Graves has come to terms with the purgatory shift he has been assigned. All he wants to do is to do his job to the best of his ability. But there is a specific case from his time with the Wild Geese, in which the prime suspect walked, that continues to haunt him. As it turns out, every member of this group has their own “White” that causes them anguish in the dead of night.

The plot is set in motion after one of this group’s Whites, a suspect in the unsolved murder of a twelve-year-old boy, is killed when his neck is slashed by an unknown assailant. Shortly afterwards, other Whites haunting the Wild Geese begin to turn up murdered, including Graves’ suspect. A moral dilemma arises for Graves when he begins to think that the officers he once worked with might be the ones responsible for these murders. And to complicate matters, someone with a grudge seems to be threatening the safety of his own family.

All of this might seem standard crime fiction fare. In lesser hands, it would be. However, Price is a first class writer, and his prose elevates this book beyond the restrictions of its genre. The tale he tells is intricate, crackles with razor-sharp dialogue, and its pace leaves the reader breathless. There is barely a wasted word in this entire novel.

Crime novels are not high on my “must read” list. This book has transcended its label and should be simply considered a great novel. Prior to The Whites, Price had written eight novels. He is considered by many critics to be the best practitioner at portraying urban American life. For anyone hesitant to delve into crime fiction, this book will certainly surprise and delight as the pages fly past. After finishing it, all I could do is sit back and exclaim, “Wow.” There is a good reason why this book appeared on so many critics favorite reads in 2015 when it was first published.

Dead Quiet

Dead quiet
on a winter’s night?
Not quite.
Ice sidles into
every crack,
rinds windows.
Possessing
a python’s grip,
coiled
and encircling,
the cold
is almost alive.
Nails pop
as wood contracts
with a groan.
While beneath us,
sprouting
veins of copper
piping,
a home’s heart
exhales
gusts of heat in
this contest
of sworn foes.
Dead asleep
on a winter’s night?
Not quite.
Curled together,
resembling
a question mark,
we dream,
restless in the din.

Neither Here Nor There : Travels In Europe / Bill Bryson

In the early 1970s, Bill Bryson, then a college student, backpacked across Europe with a friend. Twenty years later, he decided to retrace that journey. He chronicles this second pilgrimage in Neither Here Nor There. On the earlier trip, he was interested in seeing Europe on the cheap, intent on sampling all the local beers while he tried in vain to meet women. When he returns in the early 1990s, he is nearing middle age, wants the comfort of nice hotels, and has a wife and children back at home in England. More importantly, most of the places he revisits have completely changed in twenty years’ time, and they do not match his memories of them.

I first read this travelog sometime in the 1990s. It was my introduction to the author. I found it delightfully funny and it caused me to seek out his other published works. Re-reading it now, some twenty-three years later, I find its humor still amusing. However, I cannot help but wonder, in this age of “political correctness,” how his sometimes crude observations would play with today’s younger readers. Without a doubt, Bryson’s remarks about cultures, countries, and nationalities can be blistering. However, most of this is done with tongue firmly in cheek. (The butt of his jokes is most often himself.) And along the way he mixes in a good bit of admiration and appreciation of the people and places he visits.

What took me by surprise was how out-of-date this book seemed in this present reading. It is like Bryson is describing an ancient civilization. In the early 1990s, there was no internet available for the traveler, and smart phones were only in the realm of science fiction. Even the use of credit cards was uncommon; travelers’ checks were carried by most when heading overseas. A scant twenty-five years later, reading Neither Here Nor There is like stepping into a time machine to visit a world that no longer exists.

For those who want to recapture the memories of their own youthful trips to Europe in the last century, this book will be the perfect catalyst to do so. That said, anyone interested in arm chair travel will take delight in following Bryson as he wanders haphazardly from Norway in the dead of winter all the way to Turkey with summer waiting in the wings. On this solo journey, Bryson does not stop to engage the locals in conversation, he merely walks through their cities and humorously reports on what catches his eye. Those new to Bryson’s travel writing, be prepared for his stinging wit and off-color asides. Thankfully, back in 1992, political correctness was not yet being strictly enforced.

Sense And Sensibility / Jane Austen

Despite my liberal arts education, I had not read any of Jane Austen’s novels. In a book store earlier this summer I came across The Complete Novels of Jane Austen, a massive tome that gathered her seven novels. My intent over the next year is to work my way through this collection and tick Austen off my “must read” list.

I have now finished her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. It tells the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sisters who respectively represent the “sense” and “sensibility” of the book’s title. Marianne is a passionate young woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. When she falls in love with John Willoughby, she instantly believes she has met her true “love” match. Elinor, her slightly old sister, is more reserved and considered. While she too has met someone who has won her affection, it remains an unspoken attachment to the man himself or members of her own family.

The romance aspects of the story are front and center throughout. However, Austen’s humorous observations on the British upper class make it a comedy of manners as well. As the book opens, the Dashwood family has fallen on hard times (although they do still have servants). Thanks to the family’s former status, they are still able to interact with the gentry and peerage living in their neighborhood. This interaction allows Austen to poke fun at high society’s affectations. She also shows how status and money govern the rules of love among this group of people.

Gossip seems to be the primary activity of the characters, and keeping boredom at bay is the only job at hand for them. I kept thinking they all would be much happier if gainfully employed. There is no denying that this novel, loved by millions, is well-written. Even so, its charms failed to sweep me off my feet. Then again, I’m no romantic and this novel is primarily a romance. For anyone who likes that genre, this book is sure to delight.

Occupation

Friends with
busy lives advise:
Be wise,
socialize.

Solitary,
chair-bound, I’m
content to
condense.

A poem
chiseled to its
essence––
life, magnified.

Maple Tree

Autumn has
undressed Summer’s privacy.
Our belle
of the ball stands exposed.
Last week,
voluminous in the swirl of
a gown.
Today, crumpled rags are
all that
remain, gathered at its feet.
Once stripped
of Sunday’s regalia, what
is left
lacks the allure of a curve.
With that
bustle of leaves discarded,
no longer
is it a Rubenesque figure.
Minus its
shade, a curtain must now
be drawn.