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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 2018-07-27 23:02
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States - Sarah Vowell

This is my first time reading Sarah Vowell and I'll probably pick up more of her work in the future. It was funny in an amusing sort of way, as Vowell is my kind of historian and finds the more absurd or weird a lot more fun than rehashing the same details readers learned (maybe) in school. I liked that Vowell chose an outsider to center her book on the Revolutionary War. However, Lafayette just didn't have the charm or presence of an Alexander Hamilton or Patrick Henry, so his story got old and I found myself more interested in the historical monuments and museums Vowell travels to; okay, I was also very interested in the attempted coup to unseat Washington from his generalship. A good book for the July 4th holiday.

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review 2018-07-22 20:44
The First Frontier by Scott Weidensaul
The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America - Scott Weidensaul

I was really interested in reading this history of interactions between Native Americans and Europeans in colonial America, though the relatively small number of ratings gave me pause; American history is a popular topic among nonfiction readers. As it turns out I should have heeded those reservations. While I did learn some things from this book, it turned out to be a long, unorganized slog. It took me a long time to read because I returned to it only reluctantly, and because of poor organization did not teach me as much as I was hoping.

This book purports to cover over 250 years of American history, from pre-contact America up through the 1760s or so. The geographic scope, too, is broad: basically everywhere in what’s now the United States where white colonists and explorers came into contact with natives, from Maine to Florida to Ohio. The interaction between the two populations is the author’s focus.

The book mixes individual narratives with larger-scale history, but unfortunately the two facets often don’t connect well, and the history is not relayed in such a way as to be easy to remember. Though roughly chronological, the book doesn’t organize information in any particular way. Chapters have soft-focus, vague titles like “Between Two Fires,” rather than demarcating particular historical periods or events. It’s unclear how the people whose individual stories are told were chosen: are they meant to be important historical actors in their own right (many of them have a role, and from the book it’s difficult to judge how important that role was), or are theirs just interesting stories that happened to survive in written form? In some cases the book discusses people as if they are important, but it’s unclear why.

Perhaps several centuries are just too much to cover in one book, especially with a large geographic area and large number of groups (both European and Native American) involved. There are a lot of details and the author doesn’t really highlight key points or people or remind us who they are when they reappear. A lot of history happens in the background; events specific to the colonists, like disputes between colonies and the Salem witch trials, are mentioned only in passing. The colonies’ internal issues are not what this book is about, of course, but the book is also told mostly from the perspective of the colonists because they’re the ones who left written records. So I was left with a sense of reading a very incomplete history, and without being given a framework with which to organize all these names and details. We get the winter-trekking adventures of some interpreter or captive in the foreground, and then a dense collection of details in the background that aren’t really supported by the personal story.

The author’s citations are also lacking. His endnotes are extensive, but are almost entirely limited to instances where he quotes someone directly. Then he’ll state his own conclusions as fact and give no background at all for how he arrived at them, or share startling information that, because it’s not provided in the form of a direct quotation, has no reference. So it’s hard to evaluate his information.

Underlying all of this, the author doesn’t seem to have a thesis, any particular view or interpretation he’s arguing for. Some would say that’s good, that a historian should simply tell us what happened without putting his own spin on it. But Weidensaul – who as far as I can tell from his bio is an amateur historian – certainly does have a viewpoint; the lack of an organizing principle, a concerted argument, simply makes it harder to pin down, and leaves me wondering why exactly the author wrote this book.

Overall, yes, I learned some things from this book. But it was too tedious and frustrating for me to be likely to recommend.

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review 2018-07-18 18:44
Good, if somewhat dated, overview of America's war in the Pacific and Asia
Eagle Against The Sun: The American War With Japan - Ronald H. Spector

In the 1960s Macmillan began publishing a series entitled "The Macmillan Wars of the United States." Written by some of the nation's leading military historians, its volumes offered surveys of the various conflicts America had fought over the centuries, the strategies employed, and the services which fought them. Ultimately fourteen volumes were published over two decades, with many of them still serving as excellent accounts of their respective subjects.

 

As the last book published in the series, Ronald Spector's contribution to it serves as a sort of capstone to its incomplete efforts. In it he provides an account of the battles and campaigns waged by the United States against Japan in the Second World War, from the prewar planning and the assumptions held in the approach to war to the deployment of the atomic bombs that ended it. In between the covers all of the major naval battles and island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific, as well as America's military efforts in the China-Burma-India theater. He rounds out his coverage with chapters discussing both the social composition of the forces America deployed and the complex intelligence operations against the Japanese, ones that extended beyond the now-famous codebreaking efforts that proved so valuable.

 

Though dated in a few respects, overall Spector's book serves as a solid single-volume survey of the war waged by the United States against Japan. By covering the efforts against the Japanese in mainland Asia, he incorporates an important aspect of the war too often overlooked or glossed over in histories of America's military effort against the Japanese, one that often influenced developments elsewhere in the theater. Anyone seeking an introduction to America's war with Japan would be hard pressed to find a better book, which stands as a great example of what Macmillan set out to accomplish when they first embarked upon the series.

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text 2018-07-06 21:50
Friday Reads - July 6, 2018
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States - Sarah Vowell
Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home - David Philipps
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption - Bryan Stevenson
Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press - James McGrath Morris
The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas - Anand Giridharadas

This week I read Lafayette and the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell and Lethal Warriors by David Philipps. I am still working my way through Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I hope to finish by the end of next week. I am adding Eye on the Struggle by James McGrath Morris (biography of Ethel Payne) and The True American by Anand Giridharadas (true crime).

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