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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 2018-08-05 18:24
Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] - Zoë Heller

This is indeed a literary page-turner, as described in the cover blurb. Barbara Covett, a lonely high school history teacher on the cusp of retirement and aching for meaningful human connections, fixates on a younger, wealthy art teacher, Sheba Hart. Sheba is a wife and mother with a busy social schedule who becomes sexually involved with a teenage boy at the school, leading to the eponymous scandal. The story is narrated by Barbara, in an engaging, perceptive, sometimes vicious voice; as is not uncommon for isolated people, especially intelligent ones, Barbara tends to look down on everyone.

 

As many others have said, this is an excellent novel: intense, insightful, clever, well-written. This could be a good novel for those who are leery of “literary fiction,” because it is also a very readable page-turner. Though of course it is not a novel for those only interested in reading about moral paragons; it presents its very flawed characters as they are, in all their complexity, not as we might want people to be. And the ambiguous, creepy ending does not tie up all plot threads.

 

A couple of points on interpretation:

 

First, a lot of people seem to want to read a homoerotic subtext into Barbara’s obsession with her female friends. To me this is just an example of modern culture wanting to see sex in everything, and tending to devalue platonic relationships, assuming that a high level of emotional investment must mean sexual desire is involved. There are indications throughout the book that Barbara is heterosexual (her envy of the young French woman who dances on a bar and captures all the men’s attention; her willingness to become romantically involved with a male teacher even though she finds him ridiculous). For someone as isolated as Barbara, the quest for emotional fulfillment and to be important to someone else is every bit as meaningful as the quest for sexual fulfillment is for others; sex just doesn’t seem to be high on her list of priorities, perhaps because she has more fundamental unmet needs.

 

Second, the takeaway from this book for many people seems to be “sexual abuse isn’t always clear-cut because sometimes the child can be the initiator!” To which I say, first of all, keep in mind that Barbara is an unreliable narrator; she is telling the story of Sheba’s “affair” with a teenager secondhand, based on what Sheba has told her, and then coloring Sheba’s self-serving account with her own opinions; she cares for Sheba and seems to detest Steven Connelly, who’s portrayed as a rough-hewn, vulgar lower-class boy. But Sheba’s sketchy behavior is still evident, for instance, in her threatening Steven to keep quiet about their relationship, claiming he too would get in trouble if found out even though she knows this not to be true. And more importantly, getting sexually involved with someone across that kind of power imbalance – someone so much younger over whom she is an authority figure – is wrong and lends itself to abuse even if the young person seems enthusiastic. Teenagers have crushes and fantasies about teachers – Barbara comments on this herself – but that isn’t license for adults to act on them for their own sexual gratification; teenagers aren’t emotionally ready for adult relationships, and those fantasies should remain fantasies.

 

Reading between the lines, it makes sense that Sheba doesn’t understand this boundary; she began dating her husband, a professor 20 years her senior, when she was a young college student (and there’s some indication in the book that 20 years on, he’s still angling for college students). And she seems oblivious to the power imbalance in her own marriage – the way the housework all falls on her shoulders, for instance. So it’s no wonder that her boundaries would be skewed. But her flawed perceptions shouldn’t justify this behavior in readers’ minds.

 

At any rate, this is definitely a book I recommend, as a work of literary entertainment that lived up to the hype. It didn’t change my life, but it’s absolutely worth the read.

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review 2018-07-30 13:43
Satire at its best
Scoop - Evelyn Waugh

So let's just acknowledge two things.  First, Evelyn Waugh was not a pleasant person.  Anything you read about him makes that clear.  Second, this book is full of racism.  There's no way to get around that.

 

Once you've acknowledged those two issues, this book is fabulous.  Satire at its best!  William Boot, a country squire who writes the column Lush Places about tiny furry creatures, is sent to cover a war in Africa in place of another Boot who writes much more progressive stuff.  Hilarity ensures.  I'm not saying that sarcastically like I usually am when I use that phrase.  This is genuinely funny stuff about the cut-throat world of journalism and what happens when you HAVE to get a story, no matter what.  It would be fascinating to see what Waugh would do with the 24 hour news cycle. 

 

Once I accept the first two issues I mentioned, I was completely caught up in Boot's adventures in Ishmaelia.  It's not hard to see why Scoop is often considered the best satirical novel of the 20th century.

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review 2018-07-17 18:34
’Baby Teeth’ has a lot of bite and is not so sweet BUT it’s ‘un-put-down-able’
Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage

This amazingly creepy story from debut author Zoje Stage has got a lot of bite. The ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ complex takes center stage as Hanna, a seven-year old (supposedly) mute girl plays nice-nice in her father Alex’s company, but when she is the company of her mother Suzette, she just about unleashes horns on her head and a devil’s tail.


I’m exaggerating a little bit: there are no supernatural horns or tails although it’s way to easy to imagine them on this devil child that Zoje has so well-written for this novel. And somehow Hanna only manages to talk, now suddenly in French, just in her mom’s company, never so her dad can hear.


For years, Suzette has had to sacrifice her career by staying at home to homeschool Hanna, as she has been thrown out of preschools for bizarre and nasty behavior, but it’s behavior that her parents felt she would grow out of, and that once she was school-age, she could be handled better by an elementary school. Suzette also struggles with Crohn’s disease, which often keeps her bedridden and very ill, but it’s something that Hanna only has so much patience for but luckily her husband Alex has been sensitive to over the years.
Hanna persists in showing only one side to her father, who is Swedish to a fault, following Swedish holidays and traditions, which is something Hanna loves, including the special names Alex gives her, like Lilla Gumman, and she delights in little things like jumping in this lap and bedtime stories, shows of affection she reserves only for her father.
Alex and Suzette have not ignored Hanna’s lack of speech and antisocial behavior over the years though; they’ve taken her to specialists and had tests done, MRIs and other scans but there are no medical reasons for these behaviors. The answers start to become clearer especially to Suzette, as the behaviors become more pronounced; she questions herself, her parenting, whether Hanna is possessed, but she starts to realize this is just Hanna.


Reading Hanna’s side of it (as the novel goes -effectively - back and forth between what is going on for Hanna and Suzette, as if they are making an argument for their case) is just so incredibly disturbing. As she makes ‘plans’ for things she is about to do, and as she reasons ‘why she should’ do things, you’re allowed to see inside a very sad and twisted mind. As the book progresses so does her negativity towards her mother, and her need to push her mom out of the way to get closer to her father becomes greater.


The methods she does it by made me literally gasp out loud and sent my own child running (with questions for me), so that’s a good sign for me when it comes to a book.
In terms of how Suzette and Alex were able to handle Hanna: I will say that if you’re not a parent, you may have the view that it would have been easy to think ‘call the police’, or do certain other drastic things at times, but once you’re a parent, your perspective changes. You try everything else first. You want to try and help your child and do what you can, or you don’t believe they’re doing these behaviors. Your love for your child makes you run through all other avenues of help first, or in Alex’s case, stay in denial or in oblivion.


For many readers, this book may have gone too far; I know of many reviewers who passed on it because of the subject material, and it wasn’t for them. But it was totally right for me. I had been waiting for a book to be this daring for a while, and if it turns some people away, then you’ve at least elicited a visceral reaction to your work, whatever it is. In this case, it was because it was something that was going to make them feel uncomfortable or scared. I’d read that some people also got the wrong idea about the book, that it contained sexual abuse: it’s a shame people jump to conclusions before they actually have any real information.
Even if I didn’t know that the author Zoje used to work in film (as I also did) I probably could’ve guessed, as this would hold up so incredibly well as a movie; I had so many scenes in my head when I was reading this! Pure magic for the camera. Especially with the right Hanna.
The characters were so fascinating, and well-written, and I loved all the little bits about Sweden, Zoje did a fine job making these characters unique, especially for a thriller in a crowded genre. But then again, the whole book is unique, right down to the crushed lollipop on the front of the book.


And since at the center of this book is the ‘Daddy’s Little Girl/Electra’ complex, I found this fascinating. I don’t think I’ve seen a book personally written about this to this degree. It made Alex so blind to his daughter’s behavior, although it also made me question whether the ending was realistic.
The ending did kind of peter out a bit but I was satisfied with it; overall the book was such a page-turner, and kept me so enthralled, it was thoroughly ‘unputdownable’. I want more of this from Zoje!


*Warning: it might make some people question whether they want a ‘Little Girl to spoil’ after reading.

**Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for my early copy! 

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review 2018-07-15 20:44
Literary horror novel 'The Grip of It' leaves me with too many questions...or does it?
The Grip of It: A Novel - Jac Jemc

This book was a pick for my Litsy horror postal book club, and the second in a row that had the theme of a haunted house (this came on the back of the classic 'The Haunting of Hill House', which almost isn't fair, since that book is so well-known, and it was hard not to think of it).
'The Grip of It' was on my radar for a while after I noticed its cover, which is covered in the 'drawings' that show up mysteriously inside the house that the young couple, Julie and James, buy when they move to a small town outside of the city. There are lots of things that mysteriously go on inside the house (or do they?), after they move in, and the couple learns of the family that used to live there (or was it next door?), and they have so many questions that they start to run together...and largely are unanswered. ALL the way through to the end of the book. That was ultimately my biggest problem with 'The Grip of It': not ever feeling like questions were answered. The two main characters were also so similar (and weak, in my opinion), that their perspectives ran together, so the storytelling device of different chapters being their alternating different voices was ineffective. Whether or not this was intentional or not as a device to show that they were becoming of 'one mind' as the house took over, it was very confusing to read as the book continued.
I mostly enjoyed the literary prose and new approach to a 'horror' novel but occasionally I was a annoyed with the short sentences, which broke up some very beautiful writing, and very quotable prose.
And like most horror stories, the couple, Julie and James do frustratingly keep going back to this house that is obviously causing them to drift apart and for Julie to become ill (ergot poisoning? seizures?), yet the house sells quickly, so even though it seems that in general we have a no-nonsense 'literary' horror novel, we still have these silly tropes that don't make sense after all.
And what on earth happened to Rolf? ?
Still, I read this quickly, and it was a page-turner, it kept me engaged. It just could've been so much better.

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