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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Manual for Cleaning Women and Also A Manual For Becoming Awesome

I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie. - Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
One of the unfortunate side effects of this project is my tendency to want to rush through books. As soon as one Monday's post hits, I find myself worrying about if I'll be able to write another one before next Monday. Yes, it's a prison of my own design, and yes, I know that if I didn't hit my deadline nobody would notice. I would, though. I would notice. I notice everything.

This is further compounded by my tendency to read comic books exclusively when I'm going through stressful periods. This is currently, for whatever reason, a stressful period. When I look through my archives, my comic book posts are almost overwhelmingly the least popular things I've written, so I don't write about them anymore. Unless I'm desperate. So I find myself speed-reading some of the finest literature I've ever been exposed to.

There's a catch-22 here (a book, by the way, that I hate) in that I probably wouldn't be so motivated to read at all if I didn't have that looming imaginary deadline always, always waiting. So I read, and I write, and then I get discouraged and wonder why I wrote in the first place, and then I get to work on the next post.

Is this the end of Howie's Book Club? I asked myself last week around this time when I was staring at the convoluted mess that became that post. It was a good run, wasn't it? I stuck with something longer than I usually do. If nothing else I have some kind of record of my life for the last three years of my life as I underwent what feels like some pretty major changes in the way I see the world.

If you've followed this blog from the beginning you've watched as I started out trying to read through a list by Esquire about The 80 Books a Man Should Read. You guys, when I started this blog I was reading Esquire. Who even was I? What is a man? If I read these books will I become one?

There are some very good books on that list. Plainsong is great. The Known World is phenomenal and life-changing. But there is also only one book written by a woman. Out of 80 books! If becoming a man means only reading about women through the eyes of other dudes I'm going to pass on that. I've got the white dude experience pretty much on lockdown.

Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, for example, is a very good war book. It's also the most cynical, misogynist book I've ever read. It reads like the comment section on any female comedian's YouTube page. I don't know who the girl with healthy boundaries who gently told Mailer "no" when he asked her to dance was, but he never seemed to let go of that grudge.

There was a point when plowing through that list that I realized if I had to read about one more middle-aged man's affair with a too-young girl who is so wise for her years I would probably have to give up on books forever and dedicate my life to speed-running Castlevania games. We glorify this in literature, but do you remember how cool the college kids who came to your high school dances with their Junior-year girlfriend were? Me neither!

If I'd never shifted my reading choices, I'd become a very boring kind of well-read. I'd have read all the "classics" that you see on the "Staff Recommendations" shelves from hipster book nerds who all have the same handwriting and who are all discovering the same authors over and over again like kids digging up the cement dinosaur bones from the sand at the museum one hundred times a day. "Good job," the bored teen museum employee says while sneaking looks at American Psycho or whatever. "You discovered the lambeosaurus pelvis."

I wouldn't have discovered Louise ErdrichAli Smith, or Jesmyn Ward. Oh my gosh, what about Eleanor Catton! What if I had never discovered Hilary Mantel?! Remember when I first read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and subsequently fell in love? Or what about when I read T. Geronimo Johnson and wrote what is by far my most read post? (no idea about the most-read part, maybe it's the most clicked on by fake spam sites)

Partly because of those authors (and many, many more (*cough* Elena Ferrante *cough* wait is that blood in my handkerchief? I'll be your huckleberry.)) and the experiences and stories they told, I started volunteering at the local women's shelter. I became a rape crisis volunteer. I turned into the insufferable Facebook friend you had to block because honestly, does that guy talk about anything else? Since then, I've met so many amazing people and experienced things that, while often difficult and scary, are also profoundly important to me. When I'm in church and we're singing the words, "Have I done any good in the world today," I can, for maybe the first time in my life, answer emphatically "heck yes."

Books, you guys. If there's anything anybody gets from this blog, I hope it's books. Get out of your comfort zone with them. Read books by people who don't look like you, and whose experiences are completely foreign. Don't read to confirm your opinions. Read to challenge them. If they're good opinions, they won't go anywhere. If they're bad opinions, what are you doing with those things? I know I sound like a poster in an elementary school hallway. But have you walked through one of those lately? Be nice. Stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves. Eat veggies. Clean up after yourself. Read books. All that stuff is true.
But what bothers me is that I only accidentally noticed them. What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn't feel?
Here's a book I refused to rush through. It's A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, by Lucia Berlin. Berlin writes stories like I write overwrought similes: seemingly effortlessly but with undertones of deep despair. These stories spend a lot of time on or around borders. Many of them are in the American Southwest, and Mexico. A few in Chile. She evokes these border towns wonderfully. The idea of being in two places at once and not belonging anywhere.
I’m having a hard time writing about Sunday. Getting the long hollow feeling of Sundays. No mail and faraway lawn mowers, the hopelessness.
Berlin revisits places and characters throughout their lives. We read of one woman as a youth going on a vacation in Mexico, then see her decades later as she struggles with alcoholism and comforting a sister who just recovered from breast cancer as they return to the same beach. A young rich American girl in Chile gets a glimpse of the country's suffering as she helps a communist nun serve the poor, later she reflects on ways her life may have gone differently. A nurse in a trauma ward muses on her intersection with death and tragedy.

One of her most famous stories is here, My Jockey. Go read it. It's five paragraphs. Mull it over.

Berlin's writing is some of the best I've read this year. Maybe ever. I could quote it all day.
I wish there was a bus to the dump. We went there when we got homesick for New Mexico. It is stark and windy and gulls soar like nighthawks in the desert. You can see the sky all around you and above you. Garbage trucks thunder through dust-billowing roads. Gray dinosaurs.
Most of all, Berlin's voice is unique. I've never read anything like this. There is no judgement in her writing. No moralizing. Each story is a snapshot that we're left to interpret. Characters this complex usually take hundreds of pages to define, not one or two.

I'm glad I read it.