A collection worth collecting: “A Manual for Cleaning Women” is a heartfelt, rewarding book of short stories

Laundromats in desolate southwestern towns. A dentist who pulls all of his own teeth. Alcoholics, philanderers, depressives struggling to get by. These are some of the scenes and characters who make up the many unforgettable short stories in the new collection by Lucia Berlin entitled, “A Manual for Cleaning Women.”

Berlin’s stories are indeed short, and her writing is sparing and economical. It’s peppered with sentences so beautiful and real that they feel as though they have to be read out loud, savored and remembered to fully experience the impact of her writing.

In “Angel’s Laundromat,” a woman’s hands draw the attention of a stranger. As she wonders why, she thinks, “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.”

In “Mourning,” a housecleaner hired to pack up and clean the houses of the recently deceased marvels at how quickly she can dispose of all traces of a life: “…the sad part is how little time it takes. Think about it. If you should die I could get rid of all of your belongings in two hours max.”

In “So Long,” sisters long estranged are reunited when one of them develops a terminal illness, and the healthy sister realizes that they’ve outlived “all of their regret and recriminations lists. The lists now are of what we’re left with.”

This is such an odd and wonderful collection of stories, some terribly sad, many regretful, but all beautifully, sharply crafted and very hard to put down or forget. I have found the afterimages of Berlin’s bleak, sun-scrubbed southwestern towns hard to shake off. This is a memorable collection worth owning, savoring and re-reading.

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