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Alternative Memoir 

An author with no story to tell redefines the autobiography

Wednesday, Mar 30 2005
The handwritten note taped to the cover reads, "I intentionally left this book here for you to find. I hope you find some meaning in it. 149 other people are also discovering copies around San Francisco. If you'd like to share the story of how and when you discovered this book, please stop by the book's site and click on 'Lost and Found.' Here's wishing you all good things, Amy. March 2005." Amy is Amy Krouse Rosenthal, the author of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and she plans to hide about a dozen volumes around Chinatown.

She leaves the first one in an SF Weekly news rack, though I tell her she doesn't have to do so just because an SF Weekly reporter is following her around. Next she considers leaving one in the Far East Café, but when she explains her "goodwill experiment" to the hostess, the woman passes Rosenthal off to an older man, who passes her off to another young woman behind a desk, and we give up. "It's just not the right vibe," Rosenthal says. She wonders about placing a copy in a tchotchke shop filled with tourists, but then thinks better of it: "It looks like you're stealing something." Finally she places a book under the windshield wiper of a black Isuzu Rodeo LS. No one on the street blinks an eye; they're all used to seeing people leave things on strangers' cars.

Rosenthal leaves a third copy in a bus stop at California and Grant, while we wait nearby for a cable car. A young blond woman approaches and takes a Polaroid of the book sitting on the seat, but doesn't pick it up. Then a man with her photographs her photographing the book. Across the street, Rosenthal takes out her own camera and shoots the man shooting the woman shooting the book. When the two original photographers walk away, the volume is still sitting there. "Some people think it's a religious cult thing," Rosenthal explains. Later she leaves copies on the cable car seat, inside a refrigerator at the Peet's in the basement of Grace Cathedral, and propped up on a bench near the labyrinth outside; a squad of about a dozen friends distributes the other 120-plus editions all over the Bay Area.

Three people have since posted their finds on the Web site. One woman picked it up at the Berkeley Post Office. She writes: "Then there was this book in my hand, which I thought was something political, left as a tirade, or perhaps a religious book that was not really a book, that someone thought postal workers needed to expand their horizons. In Berkeley everyone seems to have an extra special need to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, so leaving things around a public place didn't surprise me. But how wrong I was! I love this book! So much of what Amy writes I could have written myself."

Rosenthal has a knack for creating connections like this -- making the ordinary seem extraordinary, the specific feel universal. A simple act like leaving a book on a bench becomes, in her world, a link to people she may never meet, a way to sample humanity in places she doesn't live. Her talent is helpful, because unlike most memoirs, hers doesn't tell an unusual story. As her foreword (quoted on the cover) states: "I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story." The thing is, it's your story, too.

The difference between Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and other memoirs or "autobiographies" (as the book is labeled on its jacket) was most clear at Rosenthal's reading with two other writers at Book Passage in the Ferry Building on March 5. Steven Sorrentino, author of Luncheonette: A Memoir, stepped up first. His story is typical autobiographical fodder; as the press materials describe it, "When his father contracts a debilitating illness, Steven puts his dreams of a career on the NY stage on hold and finds himself serving breakfast and lunch to a counter full of eccentrics at his father's luncheonette in New Jersey." The third reader was Karen Spears Zacharias, whose book Hero Mama: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam -- and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together is also more like the memoirs we expect. Each of those titles tells a very personal tale, specific to one life, in the process revealing a narrative the author hopes will speak to others. Rosenthal tells a personal tale, too, but her book carries no narrative: The bulk of it is made up of short items arranged alphabetically (and illustrated by Jeffrey Middleton, who illustrated a recent edition of Webster's Dictionary), from "Amy" to "You" (Z is blank), complete with cross-references. At the reading, Rosenthal interspersed recitations of these short bits with further stories, explanations, trivia, and background information. Her account isn't heavy, like those in the other two books, yet it's just as affecting.

Encyclopedia is like nothing else you've read. It has some design elements that might be considered gimmicky -- the endpapers list "Wines that go nicely with this book" (five reds, five whites) and "How many times certain words appear in this book" ("Sublime--1," "Love--78") -- but that come across as charming once you've gotten further in. Like some McSweeney's titles, every page has a little something peculiar on it; the mostly standard copyright page, for example, includes this note: "Not responsible for lost or stolen property. Not responsible for the weather, the moon, or scalding nature of soup. Not responsible for the extra s some people add to the word occasion. Not responsible for the short, edible window between the banana is not ripe enough and the banana is rotten." The style would probably get irritating if Rosenthal's voice weren't so sincere.

Certain parts of the book strike a chord. It seems that everyone connects to the sole entry under Q: "Q-Tip: Inserting a Q-Tip deep into your ear is a great, undiscussed pleasure." The entry "Brother" made everyone at the reading chuckle: "My brother, who grew up with three sisters, was I won't say how many years old when he finally realized that he did not have to wrap the towel around his chest when he came out of the shower." It's illustrated with an image of a man holding a towel up like a girl -- which, Rosenthal explained, Middleton had created by drawing himself in a mirror, wearing a towel.

The entry that made me laugh long and hard is called "Parking Ticket," which consists of a series of reproduced documents -- a ticket Rosenthal got in Chicago for an expired meter; the letter she sent to the Department of Revenue asking for a "small break" on the grounds of "karma" (she'd spent her extra time in a bookstore buying five books and four magazines for other people); a petition on her behalf signed by 14 people, including her baby sitter and her daughter's dance teacher; a check for 25 cents; and the response from the Department of Administrative Hearings letting her off the hook due to an "inoperable" meter. There's something both ballsy and appealing about her experiment -- as there is about her book.

At her reading, Rosenthal talked about what Encyclopedia is and is not. She knows it isn't really a memoir or an autobiography; she just wanted, she said, to "chronicle a typical 21st-century life," to capture the "tiny, perfectly mundane everyday moments" we all have. She hoped that in telling her story, she'd be "telling a lot of people's stories." "I wish," she explained, "someone would invent a word" for her hybrid volume.

Me, I'd just call it wonderful.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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