Wednesday, September 30, 2015

#30 Authors Day 30: Liza Klaussmann recommends A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

I'm so excited to be participating in a second day of this year's #30Authors event and on the final day...what a great event this has been and I'm so honored to have been a part of it! Today I have Liza Klaussman here to discuss Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women.  And don't forget to check out the amazing giveaway below as well. But first, here's a little bit about the #30Authors event itself:

#30Authors is an annual event connecting readers, authors, and bloggers. Throughout the month of September, 30 authors review their favorite books on 30 blogs in 30 days. The event has been met with incredible support from and success within the literary community. In the six months following the event’s inaugural launch, the concept was published as an anthology by Velvet Morning Press (Legacy: An Anthology). Started by The Book Wheel, #30Authors remains active throughout the year and you can join in the fun by following along on Twitter at @30Authors, using the hashtag, #30Authors, or purchasing the anthology. To learn more about the event and to see the full schedule, please click here.

Liza Klaussmann's review of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin's magnificent, stylish stories have the texture of those washed-out old photographs that you find in the bottom of a shoebox or at a yard sale: a woman standing on a porch, a screen door behind her, shading her eyes, a flash of a girl's ponytail in the right corner; or a man leaning against a broken down vintage car, legs crossed, on an almost deserted L.A. boulevard; or a grainy shot of one patent leather Mary-Jane near a dusty curb. You see those photograph and you wonder: who were those people? You wonder who the pony-tail or the shoe belonged to: why was this fellow so proud of his car? 

In Berlin's posthumously published collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, we get answers to those questions. Or that's what it feels like to read them. Her world is rooted in the American Southwest, in California, in Mexico and Chile.  It's a landscape of laundromats, and Catholic schools, and drunks and dry-out tanks, and marriages and children, and doctor's offices, and wild, cruel families. It is a ballad of rootlessness, of a nomadic and often contradictory existence: there are detox clinics that seem positively Orwellian alongside diplomatic balls at South American lakeside resorts where the worst thing that can happen is an illicit kiss. Yet, despite the sometimes contrary topography, hers is such a pure and consistent voice that once you've become indoctrinated you'd recognize it anywhere: "Raspy, easygoing voice with a smile and sex in it," as Berlin wrote of a fictional plumber in her story "B.F. and Me." But also sad--and always, always cool.

Berlin, who died in 2004, used much of her own life as blueprint for her fiction, written throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and the effect as one reads through the collection is that of family stories be told and retold, with new details -- sometimes funny, often heartbreaking -- emerging, giving the impression of continual revelation, or layering, or unpeeling. Not all short story collections can give the sense of a sustained narrative, but a Manual for Cleaning Women does exactly that, which makes it enormously satisfying to read front to back, rather than dipping in and out. 

One strand of her childhood that is retold several times, for example, takes place while her father was serving in World War II, and she and her sister and difficult, alcoholic mother are living with their grandparents in El Paso. In our first introduction, to this world, this cast of characters is dark, patently disturbed, but Berlin's surprising humor (which always seems to come like small slaps) keeps us from seeing clearly the true nighttime of the soul that is going on in that house, and which only becomes apparent in the final retelling, beginning with this chilling sentence: "I tried to hide when Grandpa was drunk because he would catch me and rock me."

It's the humor, though, that marks Berlin's work that keeps the stories from tipping over into the bleak, or depressing. From "Angel's Laundromat": "The Campus laundry has a sign, like most laundries do, POSITIVELY NO DYEING. I drove all over town until I came to Angel's with his yellow sign, YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME." Or from "Emergency Room Notebook, 1977": "There are 'good' suicides. 'Good reasons' many times like terminal illness,pain. But I'm more impressed with good technique."

While adulthood is a struggle in Berlin's world -- it is a struggle with the past, to stay sane and get to work and make dinner for the kids and kills the DTs with a bottle of Jim Bean or a sip of sweet wine from a wino buddy -- older adolescence and young adulthood carries a kind of magic in her stories. Not an innocence (the rocking chair put paid to that). But a feeling of being on the cusp, a sense that the possibilities haven't played themselves out; it permeates those particular stories in the collection, and gives them a timelessness. In "Tiger Bites," the narrator's beauty queen cousin and confident, Bella, asks her father:

"But Daddy, what will we do about Mama? And Aunt Mary? What about Lou and me here? Tigers went and knocked her up, ran off with my husband."

And her father replies: "Hope you two have knockout outfits for tomorrow's party."

Berlin had been dead eight years when her work finally gained broad recognition. That feels infuriating, but somehow, in the context of her world, not surprising. Because in Berlin's world, even if a tiger knocks you up, runs off with your husband all is not yet lost.


About Liza Klaussmann
Liza Klaussmann worked as a journalist for the New York Times for over a decade. She received a BA in Creative Writing from Barnard College, where she was awarded the Howard M. Teichman Prize for Prose. She lived in Paris for ten years and she recently completed with distinction an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, in London, where she lives. She is the great-great-great granddaughter of Herman Melville.

Author Links:
Website |  Twitter |  Goodreads  

Liza's Books:

Purchase links:


Barnes & Noble

Purchase links:


Barnes & Noble


About Lucia Berlin
Berlin began publishing relatively late in life, under the encouragement and sometimes tutelage of poet Ed Dorn. Her first small collection, Angels Laundromat was published in 1981, but her published stories were written as early as 1960. Several of her stories appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic and Saul Bellow’s little magazine The Noble Savage.

Author Links:

Barnes & Noble

Thank you Liza for sharing your review of Lucia's book with us. And a huge shout out to Allison over at The Book Wheel for putting this event together - I've already added quite a few books to my ever-growing TBR list!





  1. What a great event! This looks like an interesting book and is one I haven't heard of before.

  2. This sounds wonderful! It's so sad she didn't live to enjoy her success.

  3. Thank you SO much for participating! I've never even heard of this book but it sounds good and, well, Liza recommended it so I'm sure it'll be great.


Thank you so much for leaving a comment! I love interacting with other book lovers and appreciate any thoughts or feedback! If you read a book after seeing my review, please let me know. Come back and leave me a link to your review so I can read it. Thank you!!!

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