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A New Shine On Old Problems: How to Clean The Nastiest Stains

It's hard to take not one but two genres that are typically thought of as staples of old-fashioned "media for women" – the advice column and the collection of household hints – and make them feel at all relevant to women now, who may or may not have time for all the fussing that perfect housekeeping ideally entails and may or may not live lives in which it's their responsibility, or their priority.

But that's what Jolie Kerr accomplished at The Hairpin with her column, "Ask A Clean Person," which later moved to Jezebel under the title "Squalor." Now, all of Kerr's cleaning advice has been wrapped up into a book called, quite appropriately, My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag ... And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha.

While it might sound like a lot of silliness from the title, Handbag (I'm shortening it to Handbag and not Barfed, for reasons I hope are obvious) is actually a darned informative book. Kerr offers advice about what products to use to clean a kitchen, how to get out blood (and other protein stains you may be embarrassed to ask about), how to avoid damaging your countertops and floors, and how to clean an array of items – makeup brushes, bath poufs, razors, radiators, dishwashers, vent hoods, scorched pans, and ... well, the accoutrements of personal diversion. And by this, we do not mean iPods.

I was surprised by how much of this was either new or at least a needed refresher: why you shouldn't put fabric softener sheets in with towels, whether to store stemware rim-down or stem-down, the difference between powdered and liquid detergents, stuff like that – it's just handy. It's of use, and when you can combine breezy writing with things that are of day-to-day use, that's a win.

All of Kerr's advice is fun, but it's true that she is in some ways at her most irresistible when she's handling the kinds of awkward questions that do traditionally go unanswered in your women's magazines and your perky home-maintenance shows. Problems, after all, come in all shapes and sizes, and they're not all polite. One note, for instance, comes from a woman who describes a guest throwing up at a wedding: "She just sort of looked down and it fell out of her face." Another is from a woman whose boyfriend acts like "kind of a jerk" after she gets a bike-grease handprint on his car interior, and Kerr is both indignant and reassuring: "Even though the jerk doesn't deserve to have his car cleaned, there's actually a really easy way to get bike grease stains out of leather (and fabric, too!)."

Kerr has a way of handling these questions with such forcefully breezy aplomb that hidden within each answer, there is a greater piece of advice: Don't be intimidated by having to solve embarrassing problems, because they happen to everyone. You can manage.

And yes, she really does give advice about that handbag. It involves saddle soap and the stuff you use to get the stink out of gym shoes. The more you know!

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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