The unique and captivating perspective prized by fans of Berlin (A Manual for Cleaning Women) is on haphazard but still-mesmerizing display in this nonfiction complement to her autobiographical short stories. Readers will recognize many real-life details mined for Berlin’s fiction, here rendered in less finished form: the peripatetic childhood in mining towns; high-society high school days in Chile; her successive marriages to jazz musicians and friends Race and Buddy. The volume’s first part consists of fragments from a memoir left unfinished at the time of her death in 2004, illustrated with numerous photographs. The second, stronger section presents select letters, many from her time living in New York City from 1959–1961. Although more editorial context would have been helpful, the (too few) missives will fascinate fans with what seems a peek at the unvarnished Berlin, whose self-reflective (“I am still not proud and I am not yet humble”) and candid (“We are laughing now, in debt and broke and sickly”) voice comes roaring through. For the uninitiated, starting with the concluding biographical sketch by Stephen Emerson would be a good entrée; even better would be to read Berlin’s stories and then return to this work with new appreciation. Agent: Katherine Fausset, Curtis Brown. (Nov.)
Correction: This review has been amended to clarify that Stephen Emerson did not edit the book.