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A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

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A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, 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 A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, 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. Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they'd ever overlooked her in the first place.


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A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, 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 A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, 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. Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they'd ever overlooked her in the first place.

30 review for A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

  1. 4 out of 5

    Dave Cullen

    My foundation as a writer was shaped by these stories. I first read most of them in 1984, when I went to grad school in writing at U of Colorado in Boulder. Lucia was one of several wonderful profs I had there, but it was her stories alone that I read, with awe, and said, "THAT is what I want to do!" Quiet awe, by the way. That's the beauty of these stories. No kings or dukes or ladies in waiting losing their heads or fighting for the crown. No grand sweeping anything, no boisterous narrator, My foundation as a writer was shaped by these stories. I first read most of them in 1984, when I went to grad school in writing at U of Colorado in Boulder. Lucia was one of several wonderful profs I had there, but it was her stories alone that I read, with awe, and said, "THAT is what I want to do!" Quiet awe, by the way. That's the beauty of these stories. No kings or dukes or ladies in waiting losing their heads or fighting for the crown. No grand sweeping anything, no boisterous narrator, showing off. But no boring MFA stories full of pretty sentences about nothing, either. Just raw, gripping tales about switchboard operators, cleaning ladies and shy little Protestant girls trying to fit in in Catholic school. They are immediately engaging, with that voice, that draws you in with its candor as well as its insight. Lucia had an extraordinary ability to gaze right inside of people, sort of an emotional x-ray vision, with the people in her lives and her characters. (Of course those are the same--or the latter came from the former. She had that uncanny ability in life, and spilled it seemingly effortlessly onto the page.) Fifteen years later, when I published Columbine, you can witness my attempt to emulate Lucia on every page. I hope I was worthy. I keep reading her, trying to get closer to the Lucia ideal, though I never will. My favorite story is "My Jockey," and I've read it probably 100 times. If I can do what she did there, once, ever, that will be enough. (I was lucky enough to read this book in galleys. It's coming out Aug. 18.)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    I know already, just four stories in, that this will be a 5-Star read for me. And that a few weeks from now—because I am reading slowly, to savor each bit— I will struggle to pick my favorites from the forty-two short stories collected here. So this review contains tidbits from those stories which most capture my heart and brain and I will update as I move along. Angel's Laundromat A laundromat . . . that transient, warm, sad space . . . where we watch others sorting, folding, watching us... But I know already, just four stories in, that this will be a 5-Star read for me. And that a few weeks from now—because I am reading slowly, to savor each bit— I will struggle to pick my favorites from the forty-two short stories collected here. So this review contains tidbits from those stories which most capture my heart and brain and I will update as I move along. Angel's Laundromat A laundromat . . . that transient, warm, sad space . . . where we watch others sorting, folding, watching us... But mostly we're all just waiting. It's a waiting space. One of the loneliest. Berlin captures this loneliness, and the chance encounters possible if we happen to catch the eye of someone else sitting in those miserable molded plastic seats. Dr. H.A. Moynihan Wherein a young girl yanks out all her Grandpa's teeth. Not quite as vicious as it sounds, but also not for the faint of heart. Fabulous. Brutal. Stars and Saints Lucia Berlin comes up with these sentences, buried amidst all her brilliant sentences, that make me ache to write. This, That day on the playground I knew that never in my life was I going to get in. It's a brilliant opening line, don't you think? One I'd like to craft an entire story around. Yet it's just one in a collection of such lines in this wry, strange and sad little story. A Manual for Cleaning Women Oh. This. Ache. Melancholy. Grief. The beauty of being present. Like the laundromat, Berlin takes us into another transient, lonely space. Here it is a city bus, where one sees the same faces traveling the same routes, where relationships are built from habit and shared experience, in those brief, moving encounters. El Time Every high school teacher's nightmare: the student who is smarter, stronger, full of cunning and allure. Her First Detox A mother of four sons, a successful teacher, awakens in a detox unit without any knowledge of how she got there, or memories of her most recent binge to become the darling of the ward. Sweet, tender, devastating. Emergency Room Notebook, 1977 and Temps Perdu Both stories gleaned from the author's experiences working in hospital wards. Good deaths and bad deaths, Code Threes and Code Blues. Spare, unflinching, brilliant. Todo Luna, Todo Año A middle-aged English teacher on holiday at a Mexican beach resort. Love, tragedy, scuba diving. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Melina Short story perfection. One of those you'd teach in an English class because it's so elegantly, precisely constructed, with a BAM ending. Unmanageable The horror of alcohol addiction rendered in three tight, devastating pages. Strays I read this aloud, because the language was so powerful. The sentences like knife cuts and hammer blows. The content so upsetting. This story will stay with me for a long time to come. Grief, Fool to Cry, Panteón de Dolores, Mama, Wait A Minute There are a string of stories, starting with the aforementioned Todo Luna, Todo Año featuring the two sisters Sally and Dolores, connected but not- each is a sketch, a study, a new angle on the motif of these sisters' shared and disparate experiences. Sally, long a resident of Mexico City, is dying of cancer; Dolores arrives to care for her, and their perspectives are threaded through in moments of reflection and tangled action/reaction. Mexico City, in its frenetic rush to live and die furiously, noisily, with color and music and trampling feet, becomes a character in its own right. Carmen, Mijito Berlin conveys despair in such a way that despite yourself, you cannot look away. These young woman speak directly to the reader with such a lack of spite, bitterness, regret; their lives are a series of horrors, yet each moves through like a bird through a storm cloud. The best and worst of the human condition live in these stories. Silence A young girl's voice, heard/no heard, as she navigates the terrible world of adults, seeking beauty. Will she end up just like them? Sighs, the rhythms of our heartbeats, contractions of childbirth, orgasms, all flow into time just as the pendulum clocks placed next to one another son beat in unison. Fireflies in a tree flash on and off as one .The sun comes up and it foes down. The moon waxes and wanes and usually the morning paper hits the porch at six thirty-five. Time stops when someone dies. Time stops with each story in this collection. These are not easy reads and I needed a deep breath and some distance after each story. But Berlin's is some of the most astonishing writing I have read. Ever. It pains me that it has taken so long for us to recognize her power and mastery, that she will never know how deeply she has affected this new generation of readers. But do yourself a favor. Make it a priority to read this collection- take all the time you need, dip in and out, but know that you will finish a different human being than when you started.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Adamson

    I first met Lucia Berlin in 1991 as the significant other of one of her sons, who remains my closest friend. Though I knew she wrote short stories, it was something that was mentioned in passing and I never seemed to make the time to read them. I am thankful that I didn't. My age and experiences have just added to the thrill of discovering her writing now. I wish you could be here to see this, Lucia. Your time has come. I was a little afraid to read this book. What if I didn't like it? Or think I first met Lucia Berlin in 1991 as the significant other of one of her sons, who remains my closest friend. Though I knew she wrote short stories, it was something that was mentioned in passing and I never seemed to make the time to read them. I am thankful that I didn't. My age and experiences have just added to the thrill of discovering her writing now. I wish you could be here to see this, Lucia. Your time has come. I was a little afraid to read this book. What if I didn't like it? Or think it was good? I wanted to have a good perspective so I read new stories by Alice Munro, Hilary Mantell, Elizabeth McCracken, Edith Pearlman… and then I started "A Manual for Cleaning Women". I'm not sure what I expected but I did not expect the brilliance that I found. I absolutely LOVE this book. I have laughed out loud, I have shed tears and marveled at the language. But more than anything, I see myself in a different way with the light of her writing shining on me. Entertainment Weekly has it right. If you read one book this summer, read this one.

  4. 4 out of 5

    da AL

    Warning: Skip the two introductions to the book, unless you want to know how many of the stories end before you read them. In the case of the audio book, skip ahead to track 15 of CD 1. What were the people who wrote the introductions, and then the people who let them do it, thinking?! A beautiful collection of short stories that inspire compassion and imagination. The multiple audiobook readers did well. Given how the book is autobiographically inspired and the author was fluent in Spanish, it Warning: Skip the two introductions to the book, unless you want to know how many of the stories end before you read them. In the case of the audio book, skip ahead to track 15 of CD 1. What were the people who wrote the introductions, and then the people who let them do it, thinking?! A beautiful collection of short stories that inspire compassion and imagination. The multiple audiobook readers did well. Given how the book is autobiographically inspired and the author was fluent in Spanish, it would have been better if the readers had checked the occassional Spanish words included. Also, would have enjoyed knowing who each reader was.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Evocative and sharp, the stories of A Manual for Cleaning Women vividly portray the joys and pains of everyday life. In neat prose Berlin lends a voice to women in the Southwest as they navigate difficult terrain such as divorce, alcoholism, death, and existential angst, all the while seeking pleasure and solace in small miracles. A widowed school teacher reinvents herself on vacation in "Todo Luna, Todo Año," while two sisters cope with the sorry state of their lives at a beachside resort in Evocative and sharp, the stories of A Manual for Cleaning Women vividly portray the joys and pains of everyday life. In neat prose Berlin lends a voice to women in the Southwest as they navigate difficult terrain such as divorce, alcoholism, death, and existential angst, all the while seeking pleasure and solace in small miracles. A widowed school teacher reinvents herself on vacation in "Todo Luna, Todo Año," while two sisters cope with the sorry state of their lives at a beachside resort in "Grief." Many of the best pieces are reflective and autobiographical, reading more like literary personal essays; the opening story fully renders the author-narrator's fleeting connection with a Native man at a laundromat, and there's nothing else quite like it in the collection. Berlin has a talent for descriptive prose, but her plotting tends to be predictable, her characterization solid but not especially nuanced. Favorites include "Angel's Laundromat," "Stars and Saints," and "A Manual for Cleaning Women."

  6. 4 out of 5

    Francesca Marciano

    What a wonderful discovery: how is it possible only few of us knew of Lucia Berlin? Hard core readers should all be in love with her without question. Her stories are pitch perfect: witty, unpredictable,funny, tragic, sad. Her humor is oblique, original. The stories are so personal, clearly autobiographical, and I wonder if there were a few - about her alcoholism so painful to read - that she may have not wanted to see them published. No matter how self destructive she may have been, there is What a wonderful discovery: how is it possible only few of us knew of Lucia Berlin? Hard core readers should all be in love with her without question. Her stories are pitch perfect: witty, unpredictable,funny, tragic, sad. Her humor is oblique, original. The stories are so personal, clearly autobiographical, and I wonder if there were a few - about her alcoholism so painful to read - that she may have not wanted to see them published. No matter how self destructive she may have been, there is always joy, love and lust for life in each story, a spark of hope. And what a beautiful woman she was. (four stars instead of five only because in this pretty thick collection, a few stories were weaker than others and slightly repoetitive. But only a few.... )

  7. 4 out of 5

    Julianne (Outlandish Lit)

    I wasn't going to review this book. I really wasn't. Because how does one even begin to go about describing what it feels like to be in love? Ok, maybe that's hyperbolic, but at the same time I'm feeling the same excitement and utter loss for words. I almost skipped this book because of all the hype. Because that's the kind of person I am. I figured there's no way I won't be disappointed by a book getting this much press and acclaim. But I am here to tell you that I, the coldest heart this side I wasn't going to review this book. I really wasn't. Because how does one even begin to go about describing what it feels like to be in love? Ok, maybe that's hyperbolic, but at the same time I'm feeling the same excitement and utter loss for words. I almost skipped this book because of all the hype. Because that's the kind of person I am. I figured there's no way I won't be disappointed by a book getting this much press and acclaim. But I am here to tell you that I, the coldest heart this side of the Mississippi, always ready and willing to hate, believe the hype is entirely justified and that this book needs more. This collection of short stories is a masterpiece. I've only had this feeling with a few other authors. Shirley Jackson, Lydia Davis, Vladimir Nabokov. You just have a moment when you're reading where you go "wow, this person is actually a literary genius and I am not worthy." Prepare yourself for that feeling. Lucia Berlin is incredible in the least pretentious way possible. When you read her stories it's like being told a story by a friend. Granted, a friend who's seen a lot of life. Her writing is beautiful without it being easy to put your finger on why. Not a word is wasted and her voice is so strong and compelling. Normally I mark a bunch of passages that I like, but I had to give up with Berlin, because I loved it all so much. I was running out of book darts. "After a long time the cranes did come. Hundreds, just as the sky turned blue-gray. They had landed in slow motion on brittle legs. Washing, preening on the bank. Everything was suddenly black and white and gray, a movie after the credits, churning. As the cranes drank upstream the silver water beneath them was shot into dozens of thin streamers. Then very quickly the birds left, in whiteness, with the sound of shuffling cards." The stories in this book are a selection of her best works put in order chronologically. What's brilliant about this is that Lucia Berlin writes very autobiographical stories. It essentially feels like you're growing beside her, like you're watching her life unfold. And this lady has been through all sorts of shit. For a while she lived in mining camps in America, then she moved to Chile where she lived flamboyantly into her 20s. She moved back to America and lived much less flamboyantly. She worked as a maid. She was married 3 times, had some kids, had some affairs, and struggled with alcoholism for most of her life. Most of her stories are about poverty, alcoholism, relationships, family, death. That's part of why I thought I wouldn't be interested, but I was wrong. Berlin is sharp as a tack, she has all sorts of hutzpah, and boy can she tell a story (often in only a few pages or less). "Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats." I still really don't know what to say about this collection of short stories. I'm tongue-tied. I don't want to try to describe the pieces, because I know they'll all fall flat in my summation. All I can ask is that you please take the time to AT LEAST read this excerpt from it. "Carpe Diem" was one of the stories that really got to me and you can read it online here. I'm so grateful to have read A Manual for Cleaning Women. I genuinely feel lucky to have had the opportunity, which is an incredible feeling to have after reading a book. I want you to feel that too. "The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past. Shut the door on grief on regret on remorse. If I let them in, just one self-indulgent crack, whap, the door will fling open gales of pain ripping through my heart blinding my eyes with shame breaking cups and bottles knocking down jars shattering windows stumbling bloody on spilled sugar and broken glass terrified gagging until with a final shudder and sob I shut the heavy door. Pick up the pieces one more time." Full review: Outlandish Lit

  8. 4 out of 5

    Silvanna

    Reading this collection of short stories was a little like going to MOMA and admiring a piece of modern art you know nothing about. At first you think, hmm, it's kinda neat, but then the harder you look the more the beauty shines through. As the stories unfold in A Manual for Cleaning Women you realize they are all loosely connected, that there is a strand of consciousness. Gradually, Berlin's words begin to eat away at you. I won't say I loved this book but what I will say is that her words Reading this collection of short stories was a little like going to MOMA and admiring a piece of modern art you know nothing about. At first you think, hmm, it's kinda neat, but then the harder you look the more the beauty shines through. As the stories unfold in A Manual for Cleaning Women you realize they are all loosely connected, that there is a strand of consciousness. Gradually, Berlin's words begin to eat away at you. I won't say I loved this book but what I will say is that her words haunted me.

  9. 5 out of 5

    PattyMacDotComma

    4.5 “Afterward we went to a Chinese restaurant. But it was closing. ‘Yes, we always arrive when it’s closing. That’s when they order takeout pizza.’ How they had originally found this out I can’t imagine. They introduced me to the waiter and we gave him money. Then we sat around a big table with the waiters and chefs and dishwashers, eating pizzas and drinking Cokes. The lights were off; we ate by candlelight. They were all speaking Chinese, nodding to us as they passed around different kinds of 4.5★ “Afterward we went to a Chinese restaurant. But it was closing. ‘Yes, we always arrive when it’s closing. That’s when they order takeout pizza.’ How they had originally found this out I can’t imagine. They introduced me to the waiter and we gave him money. Then we sat around a big table with the waiters and chefs and dishwashers, eating pizzas and drinking Cokes. The lights were off; we ate by candlelight. They were all speaking Chinese, nodding to us as they passed around different kinds of pizza. I felt somehow that I was in a real Chinese restaurant.” Lucia Berlin’s stories have been much acclaimed for a long time. The quotation above is typical of them only in the unusual juxtaposition of people and circumstances. Mostly, she writes from her own life, not in any order, and many of the stories feature alcoholics, drug addicts, violent encounters, and/or living a free-and-easy life with a kind of abandon. I can’t begin to summarise anything, about the stories. It’s enough to say that each has its own appeal. Some are rough and raw and uncomfortable, and some are tender and insightful, with characters from young children to extremely old people. There has been a fair bit written about her work, so I’ll just add a bit from the biography and a few quotes I liked. The stories aren’t written as if they’re autobiographical, but they obviously come from her life. Her own life is outlined at the end of the book, and it must have been an unusual one. She was certainly striking looking. This is a common publicity shot from 1963, taken by her then husband, jazz musician Buddy Berlin. Lucia Berlin, 1963, by Buddy Berlin She was born in Alaska in 1936 where her father was a miner, so she began life in mining camps. In one story, “she” (the narrator) is five, and Kent Shreve is her boyfriend/best friend. “As far back as I can remember I have made a very bad first impression. That time in Montana when all I was trying to do was get Kent Shreve’s socks off so we could go barefoot but they were pinned to his drawers.” You can imagine what the adults must have made of that! In 1941, her father was off to war, so her mother moved the two girls to El Paso, where grandfather was a dentist and a drunk. (Doesn’t bear thinking about!) Here’s a quote from one story, which takes on a whole new meaning when you know who the dentist is. “I hated St. Joseph’s. Terrified by the nuns, I struck Sister Cecilia one hot Texas day and was expelled. As punishment, I had to work every day of summer vacation in Grandpa’s dental office.” After the war, they all moved to Chile, where mother was a drunk while she played hostess to father’s guests, like Prince Aly Khan, and had what the editor refers to as a “rather flamboyant existence.” In 1955, she went to the University of New Mexico. She married a sculptor, mixed with writers and musicians, married Buddy Berlin, a jazz musician, and began to write. Her settings range from little kids playing, older kids experimenting, ER hospital worker, and many others, including, of course, cleaning women. This is from the title story. “Some lady at a bridge party somewhere started the rumor that to test the honesty of a cleaning woman you leave little rosebud ashtrays around with loose change in them, here and there. My solution to this is to always add a few pennies, even a dime.” This is a pair of young friends on a sleepover. “We stayed awake waiting to hear his parents doing it but they never did. I asked him what he thought it was like. He held his hand up to mine so our fingers were all touching, had me run my thumb and forefinger over our touching ones. You can’t tell which is which. Must be something like that he said.” From one of the hospital stories. “I like my job in Emergency. Blood, bones, tendons seem like affirmations to me. I am awed by the human body, by its endurance. Thank God—because it’ll be hours before X-ray or Demerol. Maybe I’m morbid. I am fascinated by two fingers in a baggie, a glittering switchblade all the way out of a lean pimp’s back. I like the fact that, in Emergency, everything is reparable, or not.” A discussion of death, also in the hospital. “Mr. Gionotti’s death was good. . . . “There were a lot of them, sitting, standing, touching, smoking, laughing sometimes. I felt I was present at a celebration, a family reunion. One thing I do know about death. The ‘better’ the person, the more loving and happy and caring, the less of a gap that person’s death makes. When Mr. Gionotti died, well, he was dead, and Mrs. Gionotti wept, they all did, but they all went weeping off together, and with him, really.” There were stories in Mexico. Occasionally there are recurring characters or overlapping stories. There are one-night stands, short dalliances, and longer love affairs. Most include sensual, languid scenes, where couples almost accidentally just happen to make love, and they make you wonder what her young life was like. She certainly has a good understanding of people living in pent-up, nervous America compared to laid-back Hispanic countries. “Solitude is an Anglo-Saxon concept. In Mexico City, if you’re the only person on a bus and someone gets on they’ll not only come next to you, they will lean against you.” From another story: “I miss the moon. I miss solitude. In Mexico there is never not anyone else there. If you go into your room to read somebody will notice you’re by yourself and go keep you company.” There is an especially sensual, sexual holiday affair in a Mexican village, where American visitor Eloise convinces a local fisherman to teach her to scuba dive and they end up entwined underwater. Terrific writer. These are five-star stories, no doubt, but I recommend reading them piecemeal, not one after another. I read too many in a row, and it made it feel repetitious, but I’m afraid that’s my fault, not the author’s or the editor’s. More here: http://luciaberlin.com/

  10. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin is an amazingly wonderful collection of short stories. They share themes and characters so in some ways this collection shares some of the feeling of a novel but each story is a complete, vivid moment in itself. The people are so realized that I found myself thinking of them as real-more real in some ways than people who are actually alive since I got to know these people so much better than you can get to know most people you meet. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin is an amazingly wonderful collection of short stories. They share themes and characters so in some ways this collection shares some of the feeling of a novel but each story is a complete, vivid moment in itself. The people are so realized that I found myself thinking of them as real-more real in some ways than people who are actually alive since I got to know these people so much better than you can get to know most people you meet. Especially the female character, who seems in many ways to be a stand-in for Berlin. The pacing is perfect. There is a painful humor throughout these stories, which are marked by suffering. I finished sad that I would not be with this book as a companion. One of the things I like about short stories is I know I will be able to reread them more often than a novel. I took this out from the library but went out and bought it after reading some of the stories. I knew this was a book I wanted to own and cherish. According to the brief descriptions, Berlin's life was apparently full of adventure and suffering. She communicates these qualities beautifully in her work, although the adventures are mostly emotional. Like Berlin, the narrator of many of the stories struggles with alcoholism, the death of her sister, a sadly dysfunctional family and intense love affairs. But to sum up the work this way is, I think, to miss the point. The point, at least what I took from the stories, was that Berlin creates an intense experience of life in these stories that includes but also transcends the suffering within them. It was an incredible reading experience. Although the stories are short, I couldn't read them quickly. They are dense and full of life. I strongly recommend this book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    Least likely to say : raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, these are a few of my favourite things. Tra la la, life is a blast. Fling open the windows and breathe in the scent of gladiolas and nightingales. Most likely to say : one pint of Jim Beam, two pints of Jim Beam, three pints of Jim Beam. Those were a few of my favourite things. But now they're gone. And it's five in the morning, and the stores aren't open yet.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Janet

    This collection of short stories was recommended to me by Glen David Gold (Sunnyside, Carter Beats the Devil) on a recent trip to City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. It had been on my book list here for a while, but as soon as I got it, I ate it up in a way I usually don’t a short story collection. This collection has been drawn from several of her books published by the legendary Santa Rosa, California publisher Black Sparrow Press (and it’s always an event discovering another Black This collection of short stories was recommended to me by Glen David Gold (Sunnyside, Carter Beats the Devil) on a recent trip to City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. It had been on my book list here for a while, but as soon as I got it, I ate it up in a way I usually don’t a short story collection. This collection has been drawn from several of her books published by the legendary Santa Rosa, California publisher Black Sparrow Press (and it’s always an event discovering another Black Sparrow writer, even though the present volume is not theirs). Lucia (pron. Lu-cee-ah) Berlin’s fiction assembles itself around certain landscapes identifiable in the various stories—corresponding to times/professions/ conditions in a woman’s life. Mexico—both urban and coastal, is associated with a woman's coming to stay with her dying sister. Chile is privileged adolescent girl in with an important father. American mining towns-- a child with a dangerously dissatisfied mother. Oakland is nursing, or teaching, and alcoholism, El Paso is both scruffy and dangerous, but also genteel and dangerous, you are either a vulnerable child or a disgraced young woman. There are children, there are babies, there are Jazz musicians with drug problems. There is detox, there is jail. You end up in Boulder where there are no liquor stores or drunks. Not to get too biographical, the repetition of issues in stories does seem to indicate personal experience, these places have a strong pull for the author and she describes them beautifully. There is a certain fatality about these stories, a certain toughness and lack of the judgmental—such as the young girl in El Paso who pulls her curmudgeonly dentist-grandfather’s teeth for him in his filthy office. The specificity of these stories is dazzling. The beautiful layering. Also a claustrophobic snese that a life stakes out a territory with barbed wire, no way out. Maybe there’s always a tradeoff between stories that are wide-ranging and purposely imaginative, like Lydia Davis’s (who has written the foreward to this collection) and specific, working over certain squares of human existence again and again, like Berlin. I happen to love her subject matter. Here is the post-alcoholic narrator: “The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past. Shut the door on grief or regret or remorse. If I let them in, just one self-indulgent crack, whap. The door will fling open gales of pain...” It isn’t until short stories are collected that you start to see the shape of an imagination. The obsessions, the repetition, the landscape of the writer’s psychology. I especially liked the story of the story about the privileged Chilean girl who is caught up with an American do-gooder teacher, and taken to look at the other side of the tracks, “Good and Bad”. And a series of letters, “Dear Conchi”, describing that same girl, now in America, at college in New Mexico, in a time of poodle skirts and chaperones, and her love affair with a young Mexican-American journalist. And one of the sister stories, “Fool to Cry” where the American sister, an alcoholic, comes back to Mexico City to care for her dying younger sister Sally—“Solitude is an Anglo-Saxon concept. In Mexico City, if you’re the only person on a bus and someone gets on they’ll not only come next to you, they will lean against you. When my sons were at home, if they came into my room there was usually a specific reason, Have you seen my socks? What’s for dinner?... But in Mexico, my sister’s daughter will come up three flights of stairs and through three doors just because I am there. To lean against me or say, Que honda?” Many have interesting turns. “Tiger Bites” begins as a story of two young women, cousins, in El Paso (the scene of the crime in so many of these stories), a character study of the protagonists ex-beauty queen cousin, a real hellion, and ends up in an abortion clinic on the Mexico side of the border—and the description of a mid-fifties shady abortion will stay with me all my life. My favorite story of all is the one that reminded me a lot for some reason of ‘The Night of the Iguana’, called “Toda Luna, Todo Ano” where a young recent widow steps aside from her vacation at a sort of Club Med resort—and the pointlessness of her life-- to go diving with some locals. “All down the beach, from the town of Zihuatanejo, was a faint dazzle and dance of tiny green light. Village girls placed them in their hair when they walked at dusk, strolling in groups or threes. Some of the girls scattered the insects througth their hair, others arranged them into emerald tiaras.” But as I write ‘my favorite story, ‘ another comes to mind, and another. The woman who likes working at the ER, intimate with the details of emergency. Or the woman in detox for the first time, the camaraderie with the old-hand drunks. Or the woman who has branded the hearts of more

  13. 5 out of 5

    Laysee

    "A Manual For Cleaning Women" is a collection of 43 stories about women in all kinds of demanding jobs: cleaning woman, laundry hand, teacher, doctor's assistant, ER nurse, ward clerk, and switchboard operator. Most of these stories are autobiographical. The lives of these women - broken, wretched, heart-breaking - are veiled versions of Berlin's own. This comes close to a 5-star read. Berlin had a tumultuous childhood, dysfunctional parents and grandparents who drink, three failed marriages, "A Manual For Cleaning Women" is a collection of 43 stories about women in all kinds of demanding jobs: cleaning woman, laundry hand, teacher, doctor's assistant, ER nurse, ward clerk, and switchboard operator. Most of these stories are autobiographical. The lives of these women - broken, wretched, heart-breaking - are veiled versions of Berlin's own. This comes close to a 5-star read. Berlin had a tumultuous childhood, dysfunctional parents and grandparents who drink, three failed marriages, four children she raised on her own, and a very long addiction to alcohol. The stories - raw, gritty, biting, honest - bear her battle scars. Yet, there is in these painful stories a reservoir of self-denigrating humor, a gleeful self-reproach that bubbles up from the crackpots of the women's lives and erupts into emancipating laughter. Perhaps, there is saving grace in not taking oneself too seriously and redemption in being able to laugh at or cry over one's folly. In the story, "Point of View", the narrator, a single woman in her 50s, contemplates writing her life story. She is in love with the doctor she works for but who disdains and despises her affection for him. Most of Berlin's stories in the book are just like this one where nothing much happens. They are about women who work to make ends meet, take a bus home, eat a meagre dinner, do laundry and groceries on Saturday, and buy the Sunday Chronicle. Folks who are compelled by their life circumstances to endless labor can identify with this: "I'm having a hard time writing about Sunday. Getting the long hollow feeling of Sundays. No mail and faraway lawn mowers, the hopelessness." There are comic stories such as "Stars and Saints" about the author as an impish child expelled for hitting a nun or "Dr. H. A. Moynihan" about her half-crazed, drunk and racist grandfather who was a dentist. There are moving stories (e.g.,"Grief") about the author caring for her dying sister. A poignant story is "Wait A Minute" that conveys how time is changed by terminal illness and stopped by death. Individuals who have given care to loved ones suffering from terminal disease can relate to this: "...time turns sadistically slow. Death just hangs around while you wait for it to be night and then wait for it to be morning. Every day you've said good-bye a little." A large number of stories (e.g., "Unmanageable", "Step", "Strays") offer a staggering revelation of how lives are lost to alcohol and mangled in detox centers. I have to say I am completely worn out by a surfeit of moral laxity and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. I am also alarmed at my own feelings of revulsion and a hardening that begin to steal over me as these stories repeat themselves many times over. "Let Me See You Smile", for example, is one of those deeply disturbing stories where one's milk of human kindness dries up at the unconscionable ways in which the children of parents who drink are neglected and abused. Special mention ought to be made of a powerful story titled "Here it is Saturday". Inmates in a correctional facility are taught story writing. It is wonderful to read how the medium of writing allows them to get in touch with their deepest needs and to connect with others. I believe this is testament to the way writing plays a significant role in helping Berlin to reconstruct her life. That the desperate struggles with alcohol feature so prominently in these stories suggest how powerful a stronghold it had over her. Much as I enjoy Berlin's writing and wit in this collection of stories, I am glad to have finally finished this "manual". If there were fewer stories that kept pounding the same depressing themes, this would have been an exceptional book. Less is more.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Greenberg

    I am obviously missing something as, try as I might, I couldn't find the delight/wonder/magnificence in these stories that every other reviewer seems to have found. The hugely overlong introduction and foreword hugely distracted me as expectations were raised so high (for me) that the stories could not possibly deliver...Maybe I need to return to this at another time...but really not keen

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    Berlin writes as if she is telling the reader the stories of her life. The stories are quirky and messy and don't have easy conclusions. They feel true. She writes about everyday life; good times, hard times, mis-adventures and detours. The same characters keep showing up in these semi-autobiographical stories - Grandpa, Uncle John, her mother, her sister Sally, her husbands, her children - but the perspective keeps changing. You never know what to expect. The cumulative effect is --- expansive. Berlin writes as if she is telling the reader the stories of her life. The stories are quirky and messy and don't have easy conclusions. They feel true. She writes about everyday life; good times, hard times, mis-adventures and detours. The same characters keep showing up in these semi-autobiographical stories - Grandpa, Uncle John, her mother, her sister Sally, her husbands, her children - but the perspective keeps changing. You never know what to expect. The cumulative effect is --- expansive. I find myself looking at the world a little differently.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jason Diamond

    There are so many stereotypical things I could say about this collection like the stories "popped" off the pages and "I couldn't put it down," and all of them would be true. I felt like she was right in front of me telling me her story, that's how real these stories felt. Funny and biting, at times gritty and dark. I absolutely loved this.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Amelia

    I can’t overstate the importance of this book to my own writing. It strikes a perfect balance between precise language and thrilling thought. And it has so much life; the result of a woman who spent much of it cleaning houses, working in trauma wards, getting drunk and getting sober. Lucia Berlin goes up with Denis Johnson, Lydia Davis, and Barry Hannah in my short story dream team.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    Time stops when someone dies. Of course it stops for them, maybe, but for the mourners time runs amok. Death comes too soon. It forgets the tides, the days growing longer and shorter, the moon. It rips up the calendar. Why isn’t this already on your to-read list? It’s the real deal, guys. Check out what that ‘, maybe,’ does. I traveled through the southwest in the 1950s, I lived in Berkely in the 1970s, and she’s got those places and times nailed here. Thank God I didn’t live in a family like the Time stops when someone dies. Of course it stops for them, maybe, but for the mourners time runs amok. Death comes too soon. It forgets the tides, the days growing longer and shorter, the moon. It rips up the calendar. Why isn’t this already on your to-read list? It’s the real deal, guys. Check out what that ‘, maybe,’ does. I traveled through the southwest in the 1950s, I lived in Berkely in the 1970s, and she’s got those places and times nailed here. Thank God I didn’t live in a family like the one that fueled her ability to write these stories, but the art she made of her hard times burns true. As a child she lived all over the west in the mining camps where her father worked as an engineer. As an adult, she was always on the move as well--from bottle to bottle, husband to husband, job to job (teacher to house cleaner). But her bonds with her sons, sister, and lovers provide sources for the intense sense of passion, giving, and daring that pervade these stories. From “Mama” ”Love makes you miserable,” our mama said. “You soak your pillow crying yourself to sleep, you steam up phone booths with your tears, your sobs make the dog holler, you smoke two cigarettes at once.... and then from Panteon de Dolores: Not “heavenly Rest” or “Serene Valley.” Pantheon of Pain is the name of the cemetery at Chapultepec Park. You can’t get away from it in Mexico. Death. Blood. Pain. Torture is everywhere. In the wrestling matches, Aztec temples, racks of nails in the old convents, bloody thorns on Christ’s heads in all the churches. Lord, now all the cookies and candies are made like skulls , since soon it will be the Day of the Dead...on the ofrendas you place everything the dead person might be wishing for.Tobacco, pictures of his family, mangos, lottery tickets, tequila...on our mother’s ofrenda my sister’s children had put dozens of Ku Klux Klan figures. She hated them for being the children of a Mexican. Her ofrenda had Hershey bars, Jack Daniels, mystery books,and many, many dollar bills. Sleeping pills and guns and knives, since she was always killing herself. No noose...she said she couldn’t get the hang of it. Berlin keeps circling around her core characters, choosing a different slice of life, tweaking the details, changing point of view, alternating high and sober, until you are left with a fractured diamond that is crystal clear but broken into shards that slice into your gut. She is brutally honest about how we really feel. And she’s brutally honest about what happens to people who combine addiction with living out their impulses. From “Unmanageable” (the character has left her children sleeping at dawn to spend scrounged change on a badly needed pint at the liquor store just opening up a couple blocks away) It kept her steady to concentrate on the cracks in the sidewalk to count them one two three. Pulling herself along on bushes, tree trunks, like climbing a mountrain sideways. Crosing the streets was terrifying, they were so wide, with their lights blinking red red, yellow yellow. An occasional Examiner truck, an empty taxi. A Police car going fast, without lights. They didn’t see her. Cold sweat ran down her back, her teeth chattered loudly in the still dark morning. They let her go to the counter first. She asked for vodka and poured her pile of coins onto the counter. “It’s all there,” she said. He smiled. “Count it for me.” “Come on. Shit,” the boy said as she counted out the coins with violently shaking hands. She put the bottle into her purse, stumbled toward the door. Outside she held on to a telephone pole, afraid to cross the street. Champ was drinking from his bottle of Night Train. “Your too much of lady to drink on the street?” She shook her head. ”I’m afraid I’ll drop the bottle.” “Here,” he said. ‘Open your mouth. You need something or you’ll never get home.” He poured wine into her mouth…” She is also intensely, blackly funny. From “Emergency Room Notebook”: Drunks are invariably alone. Suicides come in with at least one other person, usually many more. Which is probably the general idea. At least two Oakland police officers. I have finally understood why suicide is considered a crime. Overdoses are the worst.... There are “good” suicides. “Good reason” many times like terminal illness, pain. But I’m more impressed with good technique. Bullets through the brain, properly slashed wrists, decent barbituates. Such pople, even if they don’t succeed, seem to emanate a peace, a strength, which may have come from having made a thoughtful decision. It’s the repeats that get to me--the forty penicillin capsules, the twenty Valium and a bottle of Dristan. Yes, I am aware that, statistically, people who threaten or attempt suicide eventually succeed. I am convinced that this is always an accident. John, usually home by five, had a flat tire and could not rescue his wife in time. I suspect a form of manslaughter sometimes, the husband or some other regular rescuer having at last finally tired of showing up just in the guilty nick of time. This was one of the NYT’s five best fiction books of 2015. Occasionally they get it right. The book's publication is due to the dedication and hard work of some of her longtime friends; I heard them read from it at an event in San Francisco this fall. They spoke with reverence of her skill and her friendship, her teaching and courage. Lydia Davis writes in the introduction: Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, took beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing...Part of the vibrancy of Lucia Berlin’s prose is in the pacing--sometimes fluent and calm, balanced, ambling and easy; and sometimes staccato, notational, speedy... Berlin is being unburied, but if you hurry you’ll still be on the leading edge.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Claire Fuller

    I really enjoyed most of these. They felt quite autobiographical, partly because they came back again and again to the same type of people, the same places in the world, the same human afflictions. I didn't mind that at all - it added a wonderful flavour to the book. Berlin's style is wonderful - observant, clear, detailed. Sometimes the endings of the stories didn't quite satisfy, and actually I think these could have been broken down into two volumes. There were almost too many stories to take I really enjoyed most of these. They felt quite autobiographical, partly because they came back again and again to the same type of people, the same places in the world, the same human afflictions. I didn't mind that at all - it added a wonderful flavour to the book. Berlin's style is wonderful - observant, clear, detailed. Sometimes the endings of the stories didn't quite satisfy, and actually I think these could have been broken down into two volumes. There were almost too many stories to take in, in one read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lorilin

    Description in one sentence or less: A collection of stories about the rest of us. Review Haiku: Compared to the stars We are so, so very small And nearly as bright :p

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lavinia

    I can't make you read these stories, but if I could, I would. This hidden (until recently) gem of American literature has been compared to Alice Munro, among other short story writers, and indeed, they share the same great voice, strong female characters disguised as domestic goddesses, and atmospheric stories, but Lucia Berlin's are also very vivid, quite dark and many times imbibed with alcohol, pain and substance abuse, which makes them way too real at times. Go read them.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    These stories make me feel as if I am having an asthma attack and I'm trying super hard to suck in the oxygen. At an increasingly frenetic pace that's getting my anxiety to such levels that I'm not even sure if I can rapidly locate the inhaler I need in the time frame that will make a difference. And even after I have scarfed the stupid thing out of the bottom of the purse in which it has been covered by nameless objects of minutia (some of her sentences seem like 3 trunks dumped into a purse These stories make me feel as if I am having an asthma attack and I'm trying super hard to suck in the oxygen. At an increasingly frenetic pace that's getting my anxiety to such levels that I'm not even sure if I can rapidly locate the inhaler I need in the time frame that will make a difference. And even after I have scarfed the stupid thing out of the bottom of the purse in which it has been covered by nameless objects of minutia (some of her sentences seem like 3 trunks dumped into a purse sized space, both for the allusion/ name drop language placements and their emotional baggage weight). OK- I feel better, slowed and no longer to a point of anxious panic, but not close to being oxygen saturated relaxed in any sense of the word relaxed. Even at the end for the best of these the aftermath seems stuck near a place which is nearly the opposite of any conceptual self "peace". More disturbing and sad than entertaining- that's for sure. They are unique in their aspects of being filled with the personality of the writer to a 5 star plus level. Pithy, depressive and often cutting. Language of consistent affirmations for a faith in next to nothing. Nihilism? Often even less. For me the sadness overwhelms everything funny, poignant, instructive. She dislikes being in her own skin? Beyond that! Losing a full star for the two Introductions too. These are the types of stories that you are far better off to take straight on without the erudite clues and prepping schmoozing voices. I can see why she was a hit. Especially in the times of the "beloved misfit reject" ideal.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    “I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that's one reason. I don't mind working as a cleaning woman. It's just like reading a book.” Every once in awhile, you stumble on a book, that just reminds you, why books are special, why you have devoted endless minutes, hours and days, to the printed page. This amazing collection of stories, that compile the best work of Lucia Berlin, is one such book. Many of these tales, are based on Berlin's life, gently linked stories, that show women, “I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that's one reason. I don't mind working as a cleaning woman. It's just like reading a book.” Every once in awhile, you stumble on a book, that just reminds you, why books are special, why you have devoted endless minutes, hours and days, to the printed page. This amazing collection of stories, that compile the best work of Lucia Berlin, is one such book. Many of these tales, are based on Berlin's life, gently linked stories, that show women, struggling to make ends meet, working as cleaning women, nurses and switchboard operators. The difficulties of being a single mother, dealing with alcohol and drugs and in the later stories, dreams and mortality. Obviously what makes all this work, is her writing craft, which makes all this come alive, with humor, intelligence, passion and beauty. Many readers, are not “short story” fans. Give this one a try: it might just open a door...a very big door.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sue Russell

    The best stories in this collection, which are many, rate a 5. I ate up this rather large book in short order. The stories are mostly autobiographical, according to what we learn from the two introductions, with variations on what "really happened" to a Lucia Berlin-type of woman with a different name but a similar profile: married 3 times, 4 sons, difficult childhood, moved around a lot(settings include Alaska, Costa Rica, El Paso, Albuquerque, Oakland)alcoholism, subsistence jobs. Some of the The best stories in this collection, which are many, rate a 5. I ate up this rather large book in short order. The stories are mostly autobiographical, according to what we learn from the two introductions, with variations on what "really happened" to a Lucia Berlin-type of woman with a different name but a similar profile: married 3 times, 4 sons, difficult childhood, moved around a lot(settings include Alaska, Costa Rica, El Paso, Albuquerque, Oakland)alcoholism, subsistence jobs. Some of the stories included were rather slight, repetitive, or predictable. The book would have been better and its author better served overall if it were shorter and more selective, but I can't say I minded getting the full treatment. These stories are punchy, funny, smart, and surprising. Berlin has now been compared to Ray Carver and Grace Paley. But she's really just herself and worth getting to know.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Megan Baxter

    Reading this book feels like a strangely intimate act. The title is strangely apt in how it relates to this, where the reader is invited in to see someone's life on a material level, touch their things, see their surroundings, but with distance. You're not a friend, and these stories aren't for you. They exist, simply and sometimes harshly, resisting easy pulls of lessons or development. Note: The rest of this review has been withheld due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You Reading this book feels like a strangely intimate act. The title is strangely apt in how it relates to this, where the reader is invited in to see someone's life on a material level, touch their things, see their surroundings, but with distance. You're not a friend, and these stories aren't for you. They exist, simply and sometimes harshly, resisting easy pulls of lessons or development. Note: The rest of this review has been withheld due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here. In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook

  26. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Just super! She ranks with Hemingway and Carver as a short story writer. Painfully and uproariously honest and autobiographical. She lived an interesting life all over the Americas, from Idaho to Chile, went through addiction and recovery, battled scoliosis and cancer, loved numerous men, had four sons, survived childhood abuse, worked many occupations, and was a gregarious woman with friends in high and low places.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ivan

    I knew from first few stories that this will be candidate for best book I read this year and that impression lasted until the end. Coming from writer who had abundance of life experience. Living from poverty to abundance, working everything from cleaning woman to collage professor, getting married and divorced, having bunch of children and greeting alcoholism problem in meantime. That kind of colorful life combined with great, subtle writing make some of the best stories I read.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Alan

    read a couple of these already - terrific, meetings in laundrettes, moonlight trips to fish - all in luminous prose.. In some ways I'm sorry to have finished this book, I have lived with it for a couple of months and tried to slow down my reading so I could stay with the voice, but I speeded up as I started to long to read more stories, I couldn't wait. Sign of a great story teller. It is like being at her table, talking, gossiping, laughing; tales of bohemia, drugs, drunks, sex, cranes (the read a couple of these already - terrific, meetings in laundrettes, moonlight trips to fish - all in luminous prose.. In some ways I'm sorry to have finished this book, I have lived with it for a couple of months and tried to slow down my reading so I could stay with the voice, but I speeded up as I started to long to read more stories, I couldn't wait. Sign of a great story teller. It is like being at her table, talking, gossiping, laughing; tales of bohemia, drugs, drunks, sex, cranes (the birds), Chile, Oakland, Texas, Mexico, Boulder. Prison, abortion, childhood, motherhood, death and illness.. She is (was) truly wonderful. I'm sorry there will be no more stories, but grateful to have read them. 400 pages of goodness and nourishment for the story fiends out there.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Eric Buechel

    Incredible. I wish I hadn’t finished. I’ll be returning to these stories again and again.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Meg Tuite

    I am sad it took me so long to get to Lucia Berlin, but am so thankful that I have read this outstanding, wildass, vibrant writer!!! DAMN! I picked it up and couldn't put it down. These stories have the same central characters throughout taken from four separate collections. I am in LOVE with the narrator of all of these! After her death her son wrote: "Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes." The stories are set in Mexico, New Mexico, New York, I am sad it took me so long to get to Lucia Berlin, but am so thankful that I have read this outstanding, wildass, vibrant writer!!! DAMN! I picked it up and couldn't put it down. These stories have the same central characters throughout taken from four separate collections. I am in LOVE with the narrator of all of these! After her death her son wrote: "Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes." The stories are set in Mexico, New Mexico, New York, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado. Berlin had so many different jobs and lived in small towns and large cities and she brings ALL to LIFE with her mastery of language and internal, external dialogue. Both hilarious and heartbreaking, she delves deep through her characters and takes us in as astute outsiders who see the unjust world with humor and pathos. Here are some quotes, but the entire collection is quotable: "shutters as old as Herman Melville." "He began to pull the rest of his bottom teeth without a mirror. The sound was the sound of roots being ripped out, like trees being torn from winter ground." "I would lurch up to them and blurt out "My uncle has a glass eye." Or "I found a dead Kodiak bear with his face full of maggots." "Cleaning women do steal. Not the things the people we work for are so nervous about. It is the superfluity that finally gets to you. We don't want the change in the little ashtrays.....Today I stole a bottle of Spice Islands sesame seeds." "You'll feel, hell if the narrator thinks there is something in this dreary creature worth writing about there must be. I'll read on and see what happens. Nothing happens, actually. In fact the story isn't even written yet. What I hope to do is, by the use of intricate detail, to make this woman so believable you can't help but feel for her." "The day my father killed off my mother was the day he stopped knowing me." "I've never understood how so many barely literate people read the Bible so much. It's hard. In the same way it surprises me that uneducated seamstresses all over the world can figure out how to put in sleeves and zippers." I am enamored! I look forward to reading all of her collections! Get it!

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