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review 2018-08-05 19:26
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories - Stephen Emerson,Lucia Berlin,Lydia Davis

I struggled with how to rate this book. On the one hand, this collection of 43 short stories is brilliant. The writing is clear, vivid, engaging and insightful. The author clearly has a deep understanding of people and how they work, and has been around the block a few times. The settings – mostly the American Southwest, the Bay Area and Mexico – come to life so that you can practically see, sometimes even taste them. And there are some really excellent, tightly-written stories here. They are often melancholy – dealing with alcoholism, difficult family relationships, social injustice – but written with a freshness and empathy that, for me, kept them from ever feeling too dark. A few standouts (not an exhaustive list):

“A Manual for Cleaning Women”: A woman describes her various jobs cleaning houses for the wealthy and her daily routine, while the tragic end to her last relationship is slowly revealed.

“Tiger Bites”: A young woman who has just separated from her husband goes to Mexico for a back-alley abortion, and upon realizing she can’t go through with it, is tasked with the care of a young girl.

“Good and Bad”: A teenage expat in Chile is drawn into the orbit of a socialist teacher.

“Friends”: A single working woman struggles to make time to spend with an older couple who seem alone, only to discover that they think they’re doing her a favor.

“Mijito”: A teenage girl follows her lover from Mexico to the Bay Area, only to be abandoned with a child in the worst possible conditions – a realistic portrayal of the life of an uneducated, impoverished immigrant.

“502”: An alcoholic leaves her car on the street, where it crashes into the car of her alcoholic friends (fortunately, neither car was occupied at the time).

So I don’t disagree that Lucia Berlin is a hidden gem of an author. But what drove me batty about this collection is that virtually every story seems to be taken from her life, and features a protagonist whose life is consistent with Berlin’s own distinctive biography: the early years in the mining towns; growing up with her alcoholic mother and grandparents in El Paso during WWII; being kicked out of multiple schools; the teenage years living a privileged life in Chile; college in New Mexico; an early marriage that produced two sons and soon ended; two more marriages (one spent primarily in New York and abandoned for the third husband in Mexico) that also ended, leaving her a single mother of four sons; moving to the Bay Area and taking jobs as a high school teacher, hospital switchboard operator and ward clerk, cleaning woman and physician’s assistant; the alcoholism; the scoliosis; the difficult, alcoholic mother with pretensions of class; moving in with her disowned younger sister in Mexico City to care for her while the sister was dying of cancer; the writing; eventually moving to Boulder. Sometimes names are changed, sometimes not; the sister is always named Sally, the oldest sons always Ben and Keith, the mother’s family always Moynihans and the flamboyant cousin always Bella Lynn; the younger sons’ names sometimes vary, as does the protagonist’s own (sometimes she is Lucia, sometimes not; Carlotta is a recurring alternative).

And that didn’t really work for me – having all the stories be about the author, or at least, about characters who had lived the author’s life (the two largely superfluous introductory essays argue that the stories aren’t entirely autobiographical because she changed some details and otherwise exercised creative license). What I enjoy in short story collections is the boundless possibility, reading about different people in different situations reading different lives. When all of the stories are about the same character, those possibilities are hemmed in, and the stories begin to feel repetitive. Some don’t really have a plot at all, but are simply musings on the author’s life and relationships: in “Mama” for instance, the narrator and her sister Sally discuss their memories of their mother and complicated feelings about her, rehashing what we’ve already seen in other stories. Stories often include superfluous details, as if the author knew too much about her own life to include only the information relevant to a 10-page story.

So that was frustrating; I wished Berlin had just written a novel or a memoir. Only in a couple of stories out of the 43 is the protagonist’s life actually inconsistent with Berlin’s. Three of them begin with a narrator who is very obviously not her, and I started to get excited, only to find upon reading further that her avatar was the second narrator and/or another primary character. Granted, some of my disappointment likely stems from expectations; if the stories were arranged chronologically and the book presented as a semi-autobiographical collection, I might have enjoyed it more.

So, do I recommend this? Sure – it is excellent writing and you know now what it is, so read it if that appeals to you. There is no doubt excellence here.

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review 2018-08-01 18:14
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today by Leslie Marmon Silko
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit - Leslie Marmon Silko

Bold and impassioned, sharp and defiant, Leslie Marmon Silko's essays evoke the spirit and voice of Native Americans. Whether she is exploring the vital importance literature and language play in Native American heritage, illuminating the inseparability of the land and the Native American people, enlivening the ways and wisdom of the old-time people, or exploding in outrage over the government's long-standing, racist treatment of Native Americans, Silko does so with eloquence and power, born from her profound devotion to all that is Native American. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this collection of essays, Silko, a member of the Pueblo Nation, discusses art, symbolism, and overall cultural growth within the Pueblo community. Some of the topics covered in Yellow Woman (the title of the book coming from one of the essays enclosed):

 

ART

 

* Symbolism in Pueblo art, ie. use of squash blossom on pottery designs = possible berringer of death, lightning imagery could mean good fortune, karmaj petals used for their symetry to represent four corners of the earth or four elements  (fire, water, earth, air). Discussion of how some imagery is used to illustrate the earth being simultaneously complex and fragile

 

* "Yellow Woman" an image of Pueblo mythology, a goddess highly regarded for her bravery, strength, calm demeanor during catastrophe, and her "uninhibited sexuality" Rather than relying on violence and destruction to assure victories, "Yellow Woman" bewitches foes simply through her sensuality and self confidence.

 

FAMILY / SOCIETAL STRUCTURE & PREJUDICES

 

* Silko writes that her own family is a blend of Pueblo, Mexican and Caucasian and her own struggles of "not looking right" to any of these groups. She speaks lovingly of her "dark and handsome" great-grandmother who "exuded confidence and strength", but admits that the woman might not have been considered traditionally beautiful by either Caucasians or Pueblo people, which opens up an essay discussion for how beauty, the thing itself, is interpreted by different cultures. Silko notes that facial differences are highly prized among the Pueblo people. 

 

*Discussion of how the idea of gender norms or "mens' work vs. womens' work" doesn't really have a place in Pueblo culture, only a matter of if you are able-bodied enough to get the job done.. so you find women doing construction and men doing basket weaving and child care. People just go where they are needed. 

 

*Historically, Pueblo people were originally fine with sexual fluidity and up until the arrival of the Puritans, openly supported LGBTQ members of the tribe. Also, babies born out of wedlock were not an issue because unplanned or not, the life was honored as life. If not wanted by the biological parents, the newborn was simply given to a barren woman within the tribe to raise. 

 

The discussions on art and culture were interesting but there was something quietly underneath that just had a feel of Silko sometimes talking down to her readers. Some of the essays repeat topics and even certain passages are duplicated verbatim from one essay into another, which I found incredibly disappointing and lazy. I know some of these pieces were previously printed elsewhere, but certain essays she must have been sitting on for a long while. For instance, one that is noted as having been previously published in 1996 -- "Auntie Kie talks about US Presidents and US Policy" -- but within that essay Silko talks about telling her aunt about an upcoming article Silko is to have published, "What Another Four Years Of Ronald Reagan Will Mean to Native Americans" (Reagan announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994). 

 

So while some of the topics were interesting, I thought the collection as a whole was kind of sloppily put together. Also, if you haven't read any of Silko's fiction, there are spoilers for some of her short stories within these essays.

 

 

 

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review 2018-07-30 11:54
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (memoir) by Anna Quindlen
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake - Anna Quindlen

In this irresistible memoir, Anna Quindlen writes about a woman’s life, from childhood memories to manic motherhood to middle age, using the events of her life to illuminate ours. Considering—and celebrating—everything from marriage, girlfriends, our mothers, parenting, faith, loss, to all the stuff in our closets, and more, Quindlen says for us here what we may wish we could have said ourselves. As she did in her beloved New York Times columns, and in A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Quindlen uses her past, present, and future to explore what matters most to women at different ages.

Amazon.com

 

 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake is Quindlen's 2012 retrospective of her life after turning 60. Presented through a collection of essays, Quindlen addresses topics from her childhood right through to the "empty-nester" years and everything in between. There's mention of how she didn't start having children until the age of 31 and then tried to write op-ed pieces on aging in her 50s but got some flack from some older readers for not being quite old enough (in their minds) for her to write about such things. Maybe an extra decade will give her the proper amount of cred for geriatric critics?

 

Quindlen explores themes of marriage, female friendship, parenting, trying to age gracefully, personal loss and the subsequent struggles with faith, etc. One topic I made a personal connection with is when she writes on losing a parent when you're still young and how that changes you -- taking health / life more personally and such. Might not be surprising for some readers that within this memoir the topic of death is brought up a fair bit. 

 

Quindlen admits to once being offended by women who CHOOSE a life of domesticity but later realizes that -- brace yourself --- some women might want different things! 

 

There are even a few celebrity stories thrown into the mix. She writes about meeting playwright Tennessee Williams (of A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie fame). Quindlen also discusses how her friendship with actress Meryl Streep came about -- Streep played the lead in the movie adaptation of Quindlen's novel One True Thing. They've been good friends ever since. It was interesting to read that Streep's characteristic way of smiling and speaking softly was something she deliberately developed back in high school! 

 

In her commencement address to the graduating class of Barnard College in 2010, Meryl Streep said that the characterization of the pleasing girl she created in high school was a role she worked on harder than any ever after. Speaking for so many of us, she recalled, "I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy natural sort of sweetness, even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys."

 

Maybe I read this at the wrong time in my life, since I'm not in my retirement years just yet. Maybe it's just a matter of Quindlen's style of writing not being quite my thing. This is the third or fourth book of hers I've tried and all have fallen under "just okay" for me. Some of the stories were good, others turned a bit boring, sometimes depressing. In between you run into some "Captain Obvious" style platitudes (but I guess that's how we recognize them as platitudes? lol). 

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review 2018-07-18 21:00
DARKEST HOURS by Mike Thorn
Darkest Hours - Mike Thorn

On top of having this super cool cover, within these pages I discovered some of the best short, dark fiction I've read in a long while! Let's talk about it, shall we?

 

When I was young and couldn't afford bookstores, I often went to the library. (I still do, actually, because I love them, not because I have to.) I developed a love of horror back then, but our library's collection consisted of about two shelves. Once I read those, I started reading all of their anthologies and collections, in the hopes of finding new authors. In this way, I discovered Richard Matheson, Steve Rasnic Tem, Dennis Etchison, Ray Bradbury and other writers that I still love to this day. DARKEST HOURS brought me back to that time of discovery-horror and dark fiction in all of its glorious, different forms. Reading this collection made me feel like a kid again. 

 

This volume begins with the story HAIR. I knew right then that this book was going to be a force to be reckoned with. Coming unapologetically out of left field, Thorn hits you with this tale of unstoppable hair and then moves on to something out of right field, just to keep you off balance.

 

THE AUTEUR It's important to know who you're talking to when you ask for horror recommendations from people. You may find out a little too much about them otherwise, but by then it might be too late. Hair plays a role in this story too. (P.S. Always feel free to ask me for horror recs. You're safe with me. But employees from Verne's Video? Watch out for them!) 

 

CHOO CHOO This story felt like it came out of one of those early collections that I loved so much. With an ending so unexpected that it felt like I got hit by a train, this tale made me laugh out loud with glee.

 

LONG MAN I never thought anything could compete against the Long Walker in my imagination. (Thank you to Nick Cutter's Little Heaven for that.) But now, now we have Long Man. He's even scarier-trust me on this. 

 

ECONOMY THESE DAYS Here again is another story, completely different, completely unlike any other story here. How much physical abuse would you be willing to take to pay your bills? What would that abusive job look like? Of what would a promotion consist? This tale proposes answers to all of those things and oddly, I don't think it's that far out of the realm of possibility. 

 

SABBATICAL If I hadn't felt the spirit of Stephen King in this story, the main character's names of Thad and Gage would've put me in mind of him anyway. I cannotdescribe this story, but it was just so much fun it made me want to do some kind of dance-the dance of my dark fiction people. The dance is delightful and it's only brought on by the best and most twisted of tales. This is one of them. 

 

Stars will collapse and new lights will prick through the sky,

and screaming will not help. 

 

SCHLUTER The most disturbing story I've ever read was written by Michael Blumlein who is a doctor. (Trust me when I say I have read some VERY disturbing stories.) I found it disturbing because in some universe it could happen. SCHLUTER has now taken THE MOST DISTURBING STORY EVER medal. What that medal would look like, I don't want to know, but Mike Thorn owns it. Take this one little harmless sentence for instance:

 

 His mind screamed, but his sutured lips twitched noiselessly.

 

If that sentence doesn't bother you, okay then, to each his own. However, if that sentence makes you want to run out and buy this book, heed your feelings, man! You won't be disappointed.

 

There are a few themes that became apparent throughout this book, academia being the one that surprised me the most, but also: hair. I don't remember ever reading a collection where simple hair is used in such a menacing, disgusting, or just mentioned in passing but still in a creepy-as-hell- kind of way. 

 

 

Okay then-to sum up: disturbing tales? Check! A wide-ranging variety of stories? Check!

Extremely well written? Check! It almost seems like this collection was written with me in mind-it was so perfect for me that I don't even know what else to say. Well, other than this: I think Mike Thorn is an author to watch. I think he's going to do great things in the world of horror and dark fiction, and I for one, will be there to watch it. Will you?

 

My highest recommendation. Period. Get a copy here: DARKEST HOURS

 

*I was provided an e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest feedback. This is it.*

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review 2018-05-20 15:46
PARDON MY GHOULISH LAUGHTER by Fredric Brown
Pardon My Ghoulish Laughter - Donald E Westlake,Fredric Brown

 

PARDON MY GHOULISH LAUGHER is a collection of mystery stories from the detective pulps. Most of these tales were originally written back in the 1940's. What fun!

 

All of these stories have the possibility of being supernatural tales, but all end up having a perfectly reasonable explanation. What's fun is the getting to the explanation! I enjoyed every single tale here, but I think my favorites were:

 

TWICE KILLED CORPSE- which had a nice little twist as well as a hero that wanted to be a detective.

 

PARDON MY GHOULISH LAUGHTER- which had a lead character that reminded me of Jimmy Olsen. (I'm showing my age here!)

 

DEATH IS A WHITE RABBIT- which was a strange little tale with a remote hint of Dr. Moreau and his experiments. These things never go well.

 

This book was a boatload of fun and reminded me of my pre-teen and early teen years when I read these types of collections. The old Ellery Queen's and Alfred Hitchcock's were always a source of entertainment, but somehow I missed Frederic Brown back then. With this collection and NIGHTMARES AND GEEZENSTACKS, (which I listened to last year), Mr. Brown has made made my list of memorable and witty short story writers. I'll be on the lookout for anything else of his I can get my hands on.

 

*I received this book as a gift from my friend Tigus, at Booklikes, with no strings attached. Thank you once again, sir! *

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