A Manual for Cleaning Women - Selected Stories17 Mar 2016
It was difficult to not compare A Manual for Cleaning Women to other short story collections I’ve recently, especially Pastoralia and Fortune Smiles, both of which were stellar. Berlin, in comparison, comes up a little short in her ability to impress in terms of raw wisdom or intellect. Where she excels in the quality of writing. I’ve heard her described as a “writer’s writer,” which is a phrase I don’t fully understand but I can see applied to Berlin.
At many points while reading the stories in this book, I found my attention straying. After a train ride or a weekend reading session, I had a hard time remembering what exactly I read just then. I didn’t find myself looking forward to picking up the book the next day to see what more I could learn. This could be related to the lack of plotting or characters, or the usual scaffolding I’m provided as a reader. There were a handful of stories that had me rapt, where each page turn was paired with a dreadful feeling of “oh please don’t let this be the end of it.” Those stories, along with Berlin’s writing, are enough for me to say I like (not love) this book.
Another feeling I kept thinking about, (I believe one of the commenters on Slate’s ABC podcast also mentioned this), was that this book made it difficult for me to get absorbed and go on long journeys with each chapter, character, plot or scene. So many of the stories are short, abrupt or disjointed that the reading experience mirrors a session of web browsing where one open tab follows another, with little connective tissue and mostly a feeling of distraction not of commitment. I tend to read novels and literary fiction to get away from that feeling. Whatever her reason, Berlin’s choice in writing short stories this way made if difficult for me to achieve a kind of closeness with the book that I look forward to when I crack open a new work.