Ooh look! It’s a little-known literary gem.
The writer Lucia Berlin was born in Alaska in 1936 and spent part of her youth in Santiago, Chile, and parts of her adulthood in Mexico City, New York, Boulder, Los Angeles, and a handful of other places. She worked various jobs: house cleaner, teacher, hospital admin. She also wrote short stories and published them in tiny literary journals and through small presses. She died in 2004. But her writing lives!
“A Manual for Cleaning Women” is the first time Berlin’s work has gotten the full royal treatment: a four-hundred-page hardcover book with a lovely coral cover from the publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. And oh, what an object to behold.
The 43 short stories within make a lively introduction to Berlin’s uncommon writerly habits. Her punctuation is idiosyncratic; her words are short; her observations are precise and often funny. (“Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women or cats.”) She loves a vigorous verb. Why eat a buttered biscuit when you can wolf it? Why step when you can lunge? Or reach when you can grasp? And she pays close attention to the sonic nuances of everyday life: the hand-claps of girls playing playground games, the crack of a ball on cement, the clicking of beads on a necklace.