Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Review: A Manual For Cleaning Women: Selected Stories – Lucia Berlin

A Manual For Cleaning Women: Selected Stories – Lucia Berlin

Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the Laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians.

Review: I think Lucia Berlin is going to be one of those writers who are more famous in death than in life. I’m not sure why because most of these stories are excellent. Why don’t we study them in school? Why aren’t they ΓΌber-popular classics? Whole writing classes could be taught on these things. Why have I never had them forced upon me by an English teacher?

A Manual for Cleaning Women is a semi-autobiographical short story collection. Lucia Berlin led an unusual life. She was married and divorced several times. She experienced wealth, poverty, and everything in between. She spoke multiple languages, lived in several different countries, had a bunch of kids, and held a diverse array of jobs. Lucia also struggled with alcoholism throughout her life. All of this is present (in fictionalized form) in her book.

“Everything good or bad that has occurred in my life has been predictable and inevitable, especially the choices and actions that have made sure I am now utterly alone.” - A Manual for Cleaning Women

Most of the stories in this collection are quiet. There are no explosions or car chases. They are about ordinary people struggling to live their lives in a way that makes them happy. I was blown away by the author’s ability to capture human behavior. The characters feel very real and very relatable. Their lives have heartbreaking moments and moments that made me laugh out loud. I also did a fair bit of eye-rolling. The characters are so lifelike that you can’t help loving or hating them. Many of the stories are autobiographical, linked, and feature the same characters. By the end of the book, it feels like Lucia is your slightly irresponsible best friend. These stories are honest. That’s what I like most about them.

“I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie.” - A Manual for Cleaning Women

I was hesitant to read this book because I don’t like stories about addiction. They tend to irritate me. There are stories about alcoholism in this book, but it’s not the main focus of the collection. Most of the stories are about family or caretaking. Lucia was a Spanish teacher, a hospital interpreter, a cleaning woman, a mother, a wife (several different times), a mistress, and the caretaker of ill family members. The stories are about characters who take care of everybody except themselves. They’re lonely, even when they’re surrounded by people. I think everybody has experienced that type of loneliness. The stories are relatable, even if your life hasn’t been as eventful as Lucia’s.

There are over 40 stories in this collection. It’s a pretty thick book. I had a lot of “Favorites.” You’d be scrolling all day if I talked about every one of them, so here are a random few that stood out to me:

In “Dr. H.A. Moynihan,” a child helps her dentist grandfather yank out all of his teeth. It’s a little funny and a lot disgusting.

A misunderstanding causes the narrator to get expelled from Catholic school in “Stars and Saints.” This story is sadly relatable. It’s about a kid who doesn’t fit in.

In “El Tim,” a middle school Spanish teacher meets her match. Her student, Tim, is brilliant and rebellious. The other kids worship him like a God. They’ll do anything to impress Tim. How can the teacher stop Tim from taking over her classroom? This is my favorite story. It’s also probably a teacher’s worst nightmare.

One of the longest pieces is “Tiger Bites.” The narrator goes to a Mexican medical clinic for an abortion and then reconsiders when she sees the inside of the clinic. The plot is sad, but the dialogue is surprisingly funny.

I only have one criticism of the book: I think a few of the stories went over my head. Some of them feel like they’re meandering and not going anywhere. Then they just sort of end abruptly. I sometimes wasn’t sure what the point of a story was or what I was supposed to get out of reading it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand, but many of the stories left me feeling “Meh.”

Overall, this is a strong collection. I didn’t love every story, but the writing is great, and it has the perfect blend of humor and seriousness. I will definitely reread parts of it in the future.

“Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.” - A Manual for Cleaning Women

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books Of 2017 (So Far)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is top ten best books I’ve read so far this year.

Honestly, I’m a bit disappointed with my reading this year. Very few books have impressed me. I have many theories about this, but I’m hoping that my end-of-year best books list looks completely different from this one. I’m not going to put any rereads on the list because that seems like cheating. Also, the list would be entirely rereads. So, here we go . . .

Best Books Of 2017 (So Far)

10. Sleeping Giants – Sylvain Neuvel

A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.  
Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.  
But some can never stop searching for answers.  
Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. Along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

9. Witness – Karen Hesse

The year is 1924, and a small town in Vermont is falling under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. Two girls, Leanora Sutter and Esther Hirch, one black and the other Jewish, are among those who are no longer welcome. As the potential for violence increases, heroes and villains are revealed, and everyone in town is affected. With breathtaking verse, Karen Hesse tells her story in the voices of several characters. Through this chorus of voices, the true spirit of the town emerges.

8. The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir – Ruth Wariner

Ruth Wariner was the thirty-ninth of her father’s forty-two children. Growing up on a farm in rural Mexico, where authorities turned a blind eye to the practices of her community, Ruth lives in a ramshackle house without plumbing or electricity. At church, preachers teach that God will punish the wicked by destroying the world and that women can only ascend to Heaven by entering into polygamous marriages and giving birth to as many children as possible. After Ruth's father—the man who had been the founding prophet of the colony—is brutally murdered by his brother in a bid for church power, her mother remarries, becoming the second wife of another faithful congregant.  
In need of government assistance and supplemental income, Ruth and her siblings are carted back and forth between Mexico and the United States, where her mother collects welfare and her step-father works a variety of odd jobs. Ruth comes to love the time she spends in the States, realizing that perhaps the community into which she was born is not the right one for her. As Ruth begins to doubt her family’s beliefs and question her mother’s choices, she struggles to balance her fierce love for her siblings with her determination to forge a better life for herself.

7. The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.  
Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival.  

6. Revolver – Marcus Sedgwick

In an isolated cabin, fourteen-year-old Sig is alone with a corpse: his father, who has fallen through the ice and frozen to death only hours earlier. Then comes a stranger claiming that Sig’s father owes him a share of a horde of stolen gold. Sig’s only protection is a loaded Colt revolver hidden in the cabin’s storeroom. The question is, will Sig use the gun, and why?

5. The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma-Jane Kirby

The only optician on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean is an ordinary man in his fifties, who used to be indifferent to the fate of the thousands of refugees landing on the coast of the Italian island. One day in the fall of 2013, the unimaginable scale of the tragedy became clear to him, and it changed him forever: as he was out boating with some friends, he encountered hundreds of men, women and children drowning in the aftermath of a shipwreck. The Optician and his seven friends managed to save 47 people (his boat was designed to hold ten people). All the others died. This is a poignant and unforgettable account about the awakening of conscience: more than that, it brings home the reality of an ongoing refugee crisis that has resulted in one of the most massive migrations in human history.

4. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm – Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm

This is a beautiful treasury of some of the most famous stories of the Brothers Grimm, reproduced in their original form. Among many others, the stories include: “The Travelling Musicians,” “The Golden Bird,” “Tom Thumb,” “Snow-Drop,” “The Frog-Prince,” and “Ashputtel.”

3. Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books – Gary Paulsen

Guess what—Gary Paulsen was being kind to Brian. In Guts, Gary tells the real stories behind the Brian books, the stories of the adventures that inspired him to write Brian Robeson's story: working as an emergency volunteer; the death that inspired the pilot's death in Hatchet; plane crashes he has seen and near-misses of his own. He describes how he made his own bows and arrows, and takes readers on his first hunting trips, showing the wonder and solace of nature along with his hilarious mishaps and mistakes. He shares special memories, such as the night he attracted every mosquito in the county, or how he met the moose with a sense of humor, and the moose who made it personal. There's a handy chapter on "Eating Eyeballs and Guts or Starving: The Fine Art of Wilderness Nutrition." Recipes included.

2. The Ghosts of Heaven – Marcus Sedgwick

Four linked stories boldly chronicle madness, obsession, and creation through the ages. Beginning with the cave-drawings of a young girl on the brink of creating the earliest form of writing, Sedgwick traverses history, plunging into the seventeenth century witch hunts and a 1920s insane asylum where a mad poet's obsession with spirals seems to be about to unhinge the world of the doctor trying to save him. Sedgwick moves beyond the boundaries of historical fiction and into the future in the book's final section, set upon a spaceship voyaging to settle another world for the first time.

1. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War – Steve Sheinkin

On June 13, 1971, the front page of the New York Times announced the existence of a 7,000-page collection of documents containing a secret history of the Vietnam War. Known as The Pentagon Papers, these documents had been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Chronicling every action the government had taken in the Vietnam War, they revealed a pattern of deception spanning over twenty years and four presidencies, and forever changed the relationship between American citizens and the politicians claiming to represent their interests. A provocative book that interrogates the meanings of patriotism, freedom, and integrity.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Mini Reviews: Crow: From The Life And Songs Of The Crow & Native Guard: Poems

Crow: From The Life And Songs Of The Crow - Ted Hughes

Crow was Ted Hughes's fourth book of poems for adults and a pivotal moment in his writing career. In it, he found both a structure and a persona that gave his vision a new power and coherence. A deep engagement with history, mythology and the natural world combine to forge a work of impressive and unsettling force.

Review: Crow was first published in 1970 and is considered a classic. I wanted to read it because I’d heard it was dark and violent. It also has very good ratings on Goodreads.

I guess I’m a black sheep because I kinda hated this book. The collection is about a mythological crow that causes destruction in the human world. The poems blend myth, religion, nature, and imagination. I like the strong imagery and the accessibility of the collection. The poems are pretty easy to understand. I really struggled with the anger, though. I don’t mind reading angry literature, but it’s emotionally draining, so I want to feel like I’m getting something out of it. I want to learn, or to be blown away by the author’s use of language, or to escape to another world. When I finished this collection, my thought was, Well, that was depressing. Why did I read it?

My favorite poem in the book is “Apple Tragedy.” The ending is so unexpected that it made me laugh. My brain melted all the other poems into a big puddle of misery, so I don’t really remember them. I guess I missed whatever is so amazing about this collection.

“To hatch a crow, a black rainbow
Bent in emptiness
over emptiness
But flying” - Crow

Native Guard: Poems – Natasha Trethewey

Through elegiac verse that honors her mother and tells of her own fraught childhood, Natasha Trethewey confronts the racial legacy of her native Deep South—where one of the first black regiments, the Louisiana Native Guards, was called into service during the Civil War. Trethewey's resonant and beguiling collection is a haunting conversation between personal experience and national history.

Review: Natasha Trethewey is a former United States Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. She’s biracial and grew up in America’s Deep South. In Native Guard, she writes about her childhood and the racial history of the South.

This collection is probably a good starting point for people who are new to poetry. Most of the poems are narrative. The language is beautiful but not unnecessarily complex. The collection is divided into three sections. My favorite section is the first one, where the author talks about her complicated relationship with her mother. The other two sections focus on Southern history, with an emphasis on race and the Civil War. The poems in the second two sections are well-written and taught me some facts about the war that I didn’t know, but I didn’t find them as compelling as the poems in the first section. That’s just personal preference, though.

My only complaint is that I wish there was more of a connection between the sections. I realize that all the poems are about history (personal or national), but the transitions are a bit jarring. That’s a minor problem. I really like this collection and would recommend it.

“I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking” – Native Guard

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Sunday Post #102

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I mini review some poetry collections.
  • On Tuesday I show you the best books I’ve read so far this year.
  • On Wednesday I review A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin.
  • On Saturday there’s a book haul.

In My Reading Life

Last week, I finished The Girls by Emma Cline and tried to read A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East by Tiziano Terzani. I read more than half of it before I DNFed. The author/narrator got on my nerves. One of my pet peeves is when a person gets the opportunity to do something amazing and then complains nonstop about it. To research this book, the author got to spend a year meandering through Asia, but the book is just him complaining about how modern and touristy Asia is. No thanks. After I DNFed that one, I started Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. I’m on a hiking trip right now. Hopefully I’m taking lots of photos to show you.
  2. It was my dog’s birthday. My baby is 9. Honestly, I forgot it was her birthday until the day after, but I don’t feel too bad because she doesn’t know it was her birthday.
  3. Remember the #NeilCake hashtag on Twitter? It raised $111,771 to help refugees. Thank you to everyone who donated.
  4. Speaking of refugees and Twitter, my review of The Optician of Lampedusa has nearly 300 pageviews. That’s an insane number of views for a review on this blog. Most of the traffic came from Twitter. If you’re interested in the refugee crisis, I strongly recommend reading The Optician of Lampedusa. It’s very short, and you’ll learn stuff.
  5. New John Green Book? What?

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag

This tag has been around forever. I think I may have even done it before. The good news is that the answers change every year, so here it is again.

Mid-Year Book Freak Out

Best book you’ve read so far in 2017?

I reread the whole Harry Potter series this year, so I’m going to try not to answer “Harry Potter” for every question. The best non-Potter thing I read this year is Most Dangerous. It’s a nonfiction book about government leakers and whistleblowers. Even though it’s about the Vietnam War years, it’s surprisingly relevant. I need to find more books like this.

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2017?

Okay, ignore everything I said in the last question. The only sequels I’ve read this year are Harry Potter. I do plan on reading Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab. I just haven’t done it yet.

New release you haven’t read yet but want to?

This was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2017. Have I read it yet? Of course not.

Most-anticipated release for the second half of 2017?

I think this comes out in September? As soon as I saw the title, I knew I needed it. That’s my kind of title.

Biggest disappointment?

An atmospheric alternate-history dystopia that’s set in a world where sin is visible. That sounds glorious. Too bad there’s no plot.

Biggest surprise?

Honestly, I only read this book because it has won so many big awards. Turns out, it totally deserves those awards.

Favorite new author?

This is tricky because I haven’t loved many books from new-to-me authors this year. I am curious about Ruta Sepetys’s books. I wasn’t blown away by Between Shades of Gray, but I’m interested enough in her work to read more of it.

Newest fictional crush?

I’ve still never gotten a crush on a fictional character.

Newest favorite character?

The sausage in “The Mouse, The Bird, and The Sausage” by the Brothers Grimm. The character is a sausage that likes to cook. The story never says what it cooks, but I imagine that it cooks the bodies of enemy sausages.

Book that made you cry?

A book has still never made me cry. I’m pretty sure I don’t have emotions.

Book that made you happy?

Besides the sausage one, you mean? Guts by Gary Paulsen. I loved the Brian books when I was a kid, so I liked learning the stories behind the series.

Favorite book-to-movie adaptation you saw this year?

This isn’t an adaptation, but I really liked Capote. It’s about Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and the book In Cold Blood.

Favorite review you’ve written this year?

I had a lot of fun writing my review for Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Most of you already know these stories, so I got to deviate from my usual review formula.

Most beautiful book you bought so far this year?

My copy is banged up because I got it from the scratch-and-dent section of Book Outlet, but it’s still a beautiful book. My only complaint is that the covers are very glittery. I hate glitter. Haven’t book designers heard that glitter is the STD of art supplies? It sticks on everyone and everything, and it doesn’t come off. This book got glitter on my hands, and on my pillows, and on my desk, and on my dog. It was stressful. #FirstWorldProblems

Are you sick of looking at this book yet? I've only shoved it in this post 3 times.

What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

So many! I should probably prioritize The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff and We Are Unprepared by Meg Little Reilly because they’ve been on my To-Be-Read shelf since last year. I just haven’t felt motivated to read them. All the other unread books on my shelf were acquired in the last six months, so I don’t feel too bad about letting them chill on the shelf.

Do you want to do this tag? Consider yourself tagged.