cover image A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

Lucia Berlin, edited by Stephen Emerson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (432p) ISBN 978-0-374-20239-2

Berlin, who may just be the best writer you’ve never heard of, has a gift for creating stories out of anything, often from events as apparently mundane as a trip to the laundromat. Imagine a less urban Grace Paley, with a similar talent for turning the net of resentments and affections among family members into stories that carry more weight than their casual, conversational tone might initially suggest. Many of the strongest stories here are autobiographical, featuring Berlin’s stand-in (sometimes called Lucille, sometimes Carlotta) and her sons, husbands and lovers; a range of jobs, mostly pink collar, but occasionally, as in the title story, blue; a complicated backstory across two continents; and a problem with booze. Berlin’s offbeat humor, get-on-with-it realism, and ability to layer details that echo across stories and decades give her book a tremendous staying power. The collection could be tighter (there are over 40 stories, some only minor) and could give readers a better sense of how they’re sequenced, but this collection goes a long way toward putting Berlin, who died in 2004, back in the public eye. Agent: Katherine Fausset, Curtis Brown. (Aug.)