A Case For Reading Short Fiction
- story by Carole McKellar
In the past, I read only novels and thought short stories inferior. Recently, several things conspired to change my mind. My Bay St. Louis book group likes to read story collections. In the past 2 years, we have read “Dear Life” by Alice Munro, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell, and “Delicate Edible Birds” by Lauren Groff. All three books led to interesting discussions, and I discovered that I enjoyed reading the stories.
Another reason for my change of perspective is a shortened attention span. There are so many things competing for my time that I appreciate reading something complete in one sitting. I usually start my day reading a story with morning coffee.
The New York Times picked Lucia Berlin’s collection of stories, “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” as one of the five best works of fiction for 2015. I was intrigued by its title and the biographical information provided about the author, who died in 2004. She is largely unknown although she had seven story collections published during her lifetime. “Homesick: New and Collected Stories” won the American Book Award in 1991, so the literary world knew and respected her.
Lucia Berlin spent her childhood in western mining towns and her teens in Santiago, Chile. She had three failed marriages that produced four sons. She was an alcoholic for most of her life, and she worked at unglamorous jobs to support herself and her sons. She spent most of her adult life in California, Mexico, and New Mexico. After becoming sober in the 1990s, she taught creative writing at the University of Colorado.
There are threads of the same stories throughout Berlin’s work. A dying sister and an unfeeling mother are central to several narratives. In the story, “Mama” is characterized with wicked humor and thoughtless cruelty. She disowns her daughter for marrying a Mexican, and when the daughter appears at her house announcing she’s dying of cancer, the mother closes the blinds and ignores the banging on her door. Berlin wrote of the mother, “She hated children. I met her at an airport when all four of my kids were little. She yelled, ‘Call them off!’ as if they were a pack of Dobermans.” Once when a cabdriver was surly, the mother said, “You seem rather thoughtful and introspective today.”
Lucia Berlin writes with compassionate understanding, free of condescension. In the title story, she rode the bus to work cleaning houses that aren’t dirty for people who think maids steal from them. On the ride, she outlined her guide to success as a cleaning woman. She advised, “Let them know you are thorough. The first day put all the furniture back wrong… five to ten inches off, or facing the wrong way. When you dust, reverse the Siamese cats.”
I loved these stories because they are elemental and real. There are spare and joltingly alive. Both of my book groups have chosen “A Manual for Cleaning Women” to read in 2016, and I look forward to rereading it each time. It’s going to live on my shelf of favorite books.
Other story collections I have admired:
“Bark,” Lorrie Moore
“Thunderstruck,” Elizabeth McCracken
“Selected Stories: William Trevor”
“Tenth of December,” George Saunders
“Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri
“This is How You Lose Her,” Junot Diaz
“Redeployment,” Phil Klay
“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” Arthur C. Doyle
Whether you are a constant reader or the person who feels too busy to pick up a book, I recommend short story collections.