Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin


‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin   (2015) – 399 pages



During her lifetime Lucia Berlin wrote 76 stories of which 43 of them were selected for ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’.  She lived for exactly 68 years, passing away on her birthday in 2004.  She was married three times and had four children.  As a child she lived in mining camps in Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and Chile.  As an adult she lived in New Mexico, Mexico, California, Colorado, and Wyoming.   To support herself and her family, she taught creative writing, worked as a cleaning woman, as a ward clerk in emergency rooms and as a telephone switchboard operator, etc.   She was plagued with health problems including double scoliosis which required her to carry an oxygen tank for many of her last years.  She had severe bouts with alcoholism which she was able to conquer in middle age.  Earlier she had spent time in detox centers.

I think that it is pretty safe to say that this is not your typical biography of a fiction writer.

“God sends drunks blackouts because if they knew what they had done they would surely die of shame.” – “Mama”

Lucia Berlin tells her stories by indirection.  She allows her characters to do things that are not totally scripted.  Compared to hers, other people’s stories are too tightly plotted.  She allows her characters the freedom to do and say surprising things.  Her characters’ behavior is not pre-ordained.   At first this freedom of behavior is a little disorienting to the reader. Just about anything can happen in one of Berlin’s stories at any time.  These are glimpses of shapeless, formless, unfiltered reality.

“I tried to hide when Grandpa was drunk because he would catch me and rock me.  He was doing it once in the big rocker, holding me tight, the chair bouncing off the ground inches from the red-hot stove, his thing jabbing, jabbing my behind.  He was singing ‘Old Tin Pan with the Hole in the Bottom’.  Loud. Panting and grunting.  Only a few feet away Mamie sat, reading the Bible while I screamed, “Mamie! Help me!” Uncle John showed up, drunk and dusty. He grabbed me away from Grandpa, pulled the old man up by his shirt.  He said he’d kill him with his bare hands next time.  Then he slammed shut Mamie’s Bible.” – “Silence” 

   At first I thought these stories were exceptionally rough, crude, and unpolished to the point where they were difficult to read.    My thanks to JacquiWine for convincing me to give ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ one more chance.

In Berlin’s story “The Step”, a bunch of alcoholics in their identical blue pajamas gather around a TV screen at a detox center to watch a fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez.

In “Carmen”, a pregnant woman takes a taxicab to a Mexican slum to complete a drug deal for her addict boyfriend.

 “That’s the lousy thing about drugs, I thought.  They work.”  – “Carmen”

Whether the drug is cocaine, OxyContin, heroin, or even alcohol, I suppose this is true.

Even in the most daring unconventional fiction there are limits as to what can happen.  Events are limited by the writer’s imagination.  However in unfiltered reality anything can happen.  Perhaps things occurred in your classroom or neighborhood that were so shocking or disgusting that you won’t even remember them.  These are the kind of things that happen in Lucia Berlin’s stories.


Grade: A-

‘Agostino’ by Alberto Moravia – Mother Love


Agostino’ by Alberto Moravia    (1942) – 102 pages       Translated by Michael F. Moore


‘Agostino’ begins with an idyllic summer morning scene of a thirteen year old boy, Agostino, out in a rowboat on the Mediterranean with his mother.

“Agostino’s mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides.” 

Agostino’s father has died, so he spends a lot of time with his mother.  On their boat trips, sometimes his mother would dive into the sea.

“Agostino would see the mother’s body plunge into a circle of green bubbles, and he would jump in right after her, ready to follow her anywhere, even to the bottom of the sea.  He would dive into the mother’s wake and feel as if even the cold compact water conserved traces of the passage of that beloved body.” 

Later while Agostino rowed the boat, his mother would remove the top of her bathing suit to expose her whole body to the sunlight.  Agostino steered the boat and did not look back at his mother.

One morning however a tanned young man appears, intruding upon the mother and son’s profound intimacy.  In a couple of days the young man and Agostino’s mother go off rowing by themselves, leaving Agostino behind.    After that Agostino must fend for himself.

He encounters a gang of rough boys his own age or older who hang around the beach with an adult lecherous homosexual sailor.  These ragged boys have disdain for Agostino since they can tell by the way he talks and dresses that he is upper class, not one of them.  With nothing else to do, Agostino soon runs with the gang every day.

“The dark realization came to him that a difficult and miserable age had begun for him, and he couldn’t imagine when it would end.”

‘Agostino’ is a fine novella, and as always in Alberto Moravia’s fiction, it deals with elemental issues.  Here we have a young boy enraptured by his beautiful mother who must move on and grow up, and growing up is not easy.   He must come to terms with his mother being just another woman.

Alberto Moravia captures the real down-to-earth drama that occurs in our lives, not on the glamorous or noteworthy occasions, but instead the subtle every day transformations each of us must undergo.  A boy growing up to become a man (‘Agostino’), a wife whose attitude changes toward her husband after two years of marriage (‘Contempt’),  a woman who works as a prostitute (‘The Woman of Rome’).   By tracing problems that face individuals, he can deal with what causes the fascism sickness of entire societies (‘The Time of Indifference’, ‘The Conformist’).

The lyrical and passionate realism of the novels and stories of Alberto Moravia is just as strong and meaningful today as it was back when they were written in the middle of the twentieth century.


Grade:   A 


‘The Four Books’ by Yan Lianke – The Great Leap Backward


‘The Four Books’ by Yan Lianke    (2010) – 358 pages    Translated by Carlos Rojas


So as it turns out, I have read the following three of the six novels on the 2016 Man Booker International shortlist:  ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ by Elena Ferrante, ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang, and ‘The Four Books’ by Yan Lianke.  I did not set out to read so many from the shortlist intentionally; it just worked out that way.  The Ferrante is my sentimental favorite, but I don’t want my sentimental favorite to win.  I want ‘The Four Books’ to win because it is one of the most powerful, ridiculing, and devastating of all the novels I have ever read.

‘The Four Books’ is a novel about the Great Leap Forward which was an economic and social campaign of the People’s Republic of China from 1958 to 1961.  The Great Leap Forward started by Chairman Mao Zedong is widely considered to have caused the following massive Great Chinese Famine which resulted in tens of millions of starvation deaths.  ‘The Four Books’ is the first fictional account of the Great Leap Forward ever published.  It is set in one of the forced labor camps that were set up to improve agricultural productivity.

At first, people were encouraged to speak their minds during the Hundred Flowers Campaign, but when they did speak up, these scientists, engineers, professors, musicians, and writers were forcibly taken away from their families for their rightest views and sent to these labor camps to work on the farm. ‘The Four Books’ is narrated by one of these intellectuals, and he ironically refers to himself and his fellow inmates as ‘Criminals’.

They all just want to get out of the camp and go home to their families if only even for a few days.  The leader of the camp who I expect is a stand-in for Mao Zedong is known as The Child for his youthful appearance.  He sets up a reward system based on flowers so when someone accumulates enough flowers he or she can go home for a few days.  One of the main ways to get flowers is to report bad stuff on your fellow inmates.  Sexual liaisons are particularly forbidden.  So then you have all these inmates spying on each other in order to win flowers.  Also the campers must watch over their flowers very closely or someone else might steal them.

Even though the Great Leap Forward was a deadly business, Yan Lianke sees the humor of all these campers behaving childishly in order to impress their leader, get some flowers, and at least be able to leave the camp for a few days.  One of the points Lianke makes is that the simplistic rules of the camp caused the inmates to revert to childish behavior.

Later we get into the ‘home’ steel production fiasco and then the discovery of a startling new way to fertilize the crops.

One would think reading about forced labor camps and famines would be brutal and gruesome heavy reading, but Yan Lianke lightens the story up with irony and sarcasm and ridicule.  The mood of ‘The Four Books’ could best be described as “bitter laughter”.  I admire the way Lianke uses humor to tell the inside story about these forced labor camps.  Humor does not make a horrible situation any brighter, but it can help point the way as to what went wrong.

This is a story that absolutely needed to be told.  Yan Lianke worked twenty years on this novel, and it was rejected by 20 publishers for political reasons.  Now that it has finally been published and translated, the world can see that he has succeeded brilliantly in telling the awful story of the Great Leap Forward.


Grade:    A

Constance Fenimore Woolson – A Fiction Author Recovered


‘Miss Grief and Other Stories’ by Constance Fenimore Woolson    (1840 – 1894) – 287 pages   Edited by Anne Boyd Rioux



I am always up for the reclamation of authors, especially woman authors who have been unnecessarily trivialized or ignored.  Before Tim Page, who knew that Dawn Powell was probably the best United States fiction writer of last century, surpassing even Hemingway and Fitzgerald?  And in all of England there is no writer I would rather read than Elizabeth Taylor.  Randall Jarrell did an excellent job reclaiming the novel ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead from the dustbin of history.  I did my own small part in recovering Henry Handel Richardson and her ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ trilogy‘ early on in my blogging career.

Now Anne Boyd Rioux is reclaiming the nineteenth century author Constance Fenimore Woolson by writing Woolson’s biography and editing her ‘Miss Grief and Other Stories’.

Constance Fenimore Woolson was considered one of the best writers of her time in the late 19th century.  Woolson was a quintessential American writer.  She wrote stories of Ohio and the Great Lakes and later when she moved to Florida, stories of the American South.  The characteristic scene for Woolson is on a boat or in a lighthouse along a sea shore or in a river or stream or even in a marsh.  She excels in her descriptions of nature, makes you feel that you are there in the water with her.  I don’t know how she got so much experience on boats, but it seems quite unusual for a woman of that time.

“You might call it a marsh, but there was no mud, no dark slimy water, no stagnant scum; there were no rank yellow lilies, no gormandizing frogs, no swinish mud-turtles.” 

“The lazy gulls who had no work to do, and would not have done it if they had, rode at ease on the little wavelets close in shore.”    

The style is of its time in the 1870s and 1880s, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, perhaps more description altogether.  It takes a bit of getting used to.  However as I read these stories, I got that rush I get only when I am reading fine fiction.

In her story ‘Solomon’, Woolson captures the dignity of a poor coal miner in eastern Ohio who spends all his free time painting primitive pictures of his wife until he finally dies, poisoned by the gas from the mine.   I found this to be a deeply moving story.

The words used to describe a black person in Woolson’s story  ‘Rodman The Keeper’ could easily be interpreted as racist which they are.  But at the same time one must remember that the N-word was used by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn 219 times, and that Henry James considered himself so aristocratic that he never even depicted black people in his novels.  Otherwise, ‘Rodman The Keeper’ is a compassionate story that takes place at a Union cemetery in North Carolina a few years after the Civil War.

In 1879, Constance Fenimore Woolson made what I consider to be the most disastrous mistake of her writing career and perhaps even of her life.  Why would a woman who was so in tune to the natural world of the United States move to Italy?  Her story ‘Miss Grief” hints that Woolson was already in thrall of Henry James even before she met him.  At this point Woolson was much the more famous writer with James still largely unknown.  Later Woolson and Henry James became close friends in Europe, with the two of them keeping separate apartments in a shared rented villa for a time.   They kept in touch until the end.

Early in Woolson’s career,  George Eliot and her empathetic realism were her role models for fiction writing.  However Woolson changed her writing style toward Henry James’ contrived brand of analytical realism.  Her later story ‘A Florentine Experiment’ reads like warmed-over Henry James about insanely rich people traipsing around Italian museums and their own Italian mansions.  This story was a severe disappointment to me after reading Woolson’s early original and forceful American stories.

The story of Constance Fenimore Woolson ends tragically.  Woolson was always prone to bouts of depression and on the night of January 24, 1894, she fell or jumped from the third floor window of the bedroom of her Venetian villa to her death.  Henry James afterwards told of how he disposed of Woolson’s old clothing in a Venetian lagoon three months later, but the dresses kept rising to the surface.


Grade:    B 


‘The Nest’ Phenomenon


‘The Nest’ by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney   (2016) – 352 pages



Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney has captured the secret of the ages in her new novel ‘The Nest’.  And what is that secret?  It is that a family is nothing more or less than a collection of characters.  Your family or my family may have a different set of characters, but characters we all are just the same.

In ‘The Nest’, we have the Plumb family siblings Melody, Jack, Bea, and Leo.  Melody is the wifey-wife and mommy-mom; she has husband Walter and two daughters, Nora and Louise, ready for college and all its expense.  Jack is the gay guy with his husband Walker and his antique store.  Bea is still single and still struggling to be a writer.  And Leo is the outrageous one who though pushing fifty still picks up stray young women at weddings and makes out with them in a car parked near the church.  Is this a dysfunctional family or just another typical family?

Like any family, they could all use more money.  That is where the nest or nest egg comes in.  Their father had put aside some money before he died, and now it has grown over the years to be divided equally among the children when the youngest, Melody, turns forty.

The point of view shifts from family member to family member to one or another of their acquaintances throughout the novel, so we get a varied picture of this family living in and around New York.  The time is today, nearly fifteen years after 9/11.  There is the obligatory 9/11 scene in ‘The Nest’, but life moves on.  There is room for plenty of humor in ‘The Nest’.

‘The Nest’ is one of those rarest of novels, both a remarkable literary debut and a best-seller.  The author maintains just the correct distance from her characters so that we can see them clearly but also with enough irony and humor so we can fully enjoy them.   I must say I too got caught up in the lively energy of the writing in ‘The Nest’, devouring this novel much faster than I normally read novels.  The scenes are either hilarious or poignant or both.

There is a prologue scene in ‘The Nest’, and that scene reminded me very much of a famous one in another novel that was also both a literary and best-selling sensation, ‘The World According to Garp’ by John Irving.  The scenes in both novels involve a man and a woman in a parked car and a tragic car accident.   Both ‘Garp’ and ‘The Nest’ are high-activity and sharply written novels that you just want to keep reading to find out what happens next.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney received at least a million dollar advance for this novel, and Amazon Films has already purchased the movie rights for it.  The author is 55 years old, and ‘The Nest’ is her first novel.  That is kind of cool too.


Grade:    A-    

‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz – The World, The Flesh, and L.A.


‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz   (1977) – 178 pages



New York Review Books (NYRB Classics) is issuing a new version of the 1977 fiction ‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz in August of this year, so I decided to be uncharacteristically ahead of the curve this time in reading and writing about it.  This book is described as a series of fictional memoirs, which I suppose means that the events described within actually happened, but that the names have been changed to protect the guilty.  And guilty these characters would probably be considering some of their behavior.  There are threesomes, there are women going back and forth between guys and gals, and men going back and forth between gals and guys.  This is Hollywood in the 1970s, and Eve Babitz was on the front lines of it all.   But this book is not mainly about sex; it is about enjoying wild and wicked times in Los Angeles.

Eve Basbitz started out in the art world.  When she was nineteen in 1963, an iconic picture of her was taken with Eve playing chess in the nude with renowned Dada artist Marcel Duchamp.  You can easily find this picture puppy now via any image search engine.  In the Sixties she designed album covers for such music acts as the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.   Babitz took the picture of Linda Ronstadt that appears on the cover of the ‘’Heart Like A Wheel’ album.  As well as these music acts out in Laurel Canyon, Babitz met a lot of the set designers working on Hollywood movies.

As NYRB has discovered, Eve Babitz had a talent for writing.  She was “a frivolous young woman prone to adventure.”  Her earlier memoir ‘Eve’s Hollywood’ which I also have read was also republished by NYRB.

A lot of ‘Fast Days, Slow Company’ has to do with the quandary of male/female relationships.

“I’ve often noticed that there is a moment when a man develops enough confidence and ease in a relationship to bore you to death.  Sometimes one hardly even notices it’s happened, that moment, until some careless remark arouses one’s suspicions.  I have found that what usually brings this lethargy on is if the woman displays some special kindness.  Like making dinner.”

This is lively effervescent writing.  Since it is a series of scattered fictional memoirs, the book lacks the coherence of a single novel.  However I believe it gives a good overall picture of what life must have been like in the middle 1970s in Los Angeles for the fast crowd, for the art and movie and music types.


Grade:    B 


‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ by Jennifer Johnston, Irish Virtuoso of the Short Intense Novel


‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’  by Jennifer Johnston   (1974) – 156 pages




‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ tells about an Irish family facing World War I, but it is no exercise in misty-eyed nostalgia; this novel confronts hard truths head on.    It sure would be nice if we all came from loving reasonably happy families but that simply is not the case, not even among the upper class people.  Bitter unhappiness in families and hugely murderous wars are two of the manifestations of imperfection in humans, and ‘Babylon’ deals with them both.

This novel is about two Irish boys, Alec and Jerry, who go off to fight in World War I.  Alec is upper class; Jerry is lower class.  They befriend each other while out in the fields while young, much to Alec’s mother’s distress.  Alec’s mother is one of the most spiteful characters I have ever come across in fiction.  The marriage between Alec’s mother and Alec’s father is strained somewhere between indifference and outright hatred.  Here is a couple who probably should have been divorced, but divorce was unacceptable at that time.

“Mother was always insistent in an immaculate appearance at the breakfast table.  They would be there, immaculate themselves, their heads elegantly bent towards the breakfast morning papers and the cream-drenched porridge, starched damask napkins folded neatly across their knees. They would grow old immaculately, their implacable hatred of each other hidden from the world.  Is hatred as necessary as love, I wondered, to keep the wheels driving forward?”

These lines highlight two of the special qualities in Jennifer Johnston’s writing.  There are the physical details that dramatize the scene but also advance the story, “the cream-drenched porridge, the starched damask napkins folded neatly across the knees”.  But then also there is the heavy emotional weight of the scene, the couple’s “implacable hatred of each other hidden from the world”.   There would have been so many other ways for Johnston to lighten this scene, but she instead faces up to the antagonism between this husband and wife directly.

We also get into the political situation at the time.  Irish men are fighting in the British army, but many of them during World War I are looking forward to the day when Ireland will be independent of England, and they resent having to follow the commands of their British officers.

Whenever I read a novel by Jennifer Johnston (and I have read at least six), I think this could really work well as a play or a movie.  She always has strong characters and dramatic scenes in her stories that just seem to be calling out to be portrayed by actors.  I know her father, Denis Johnston, was a playwright so it is in her genes.

All of the novels of Jennifer Johnston that I have read have been tough-minded and deal with hard truths, and ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ is no exception.  However her writing is also lyrical and passionate and you get a grand picture of what life was like in the Irish countryside.  She is a master of the short intense novel.

I do believe that Jennifer Johnston is one of the absolute strongest writers of recent times and that you could do yourself a favor and read her work.   But don’t only take my word for it.    Check out the Jennifer Johnston collection at Reading Matters.  Jennifer Johnston is also the favorite living author of Kim at Reading Matters.


Grade:   A 



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