Amy Krouse Rosenthal
It would be so easy to hate Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Amy Krouse Rosenthal has written a raft of books about parenting. They have titles like "The Same Phrase Describes My Marriage and My Breasts…Before the kids, they used to be a cute couple.”
Amy Krouse Rosenthal has created sound files of her children. Like: kids slurping breakfast cereal. Amy Krouse Rosenthal once had a column called "15 Megabytes of Fame."
Amy Krouse Rosenthal, asked what it's like to have three --- three! --- kids, responded thus: "It's just love to the third power."
Amy Krouse Rosenthal's idea of five words that sound great: "They lived happily ever after."
Amy Krouse Rosenthal asks herself questions like: "Are Christo's gifts amazingly wrapped?"
Cute. Terminally cute, in that charming (but really, when you think about it: annoying), suburban, privileged, NPR way. You know, like she just happens to write down the cute things her children say and her mind serves up, and then --- surprise! --- a magazine calls and pries her notes from her reluctant fingers.
I'm not buying it. I say Amy Krouse Rosenthal --- and, c'mon, what's with all the names? Is she an acolyte of Hillary Rodham Clinton? --- is a professional writer and a damn clever one at that. I say cute is a brilliant disguise for ambition and craft. I say 'Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life' is anything but a random tour through the days and thoughts of an ordinary woman --- there's not one ordinary thing about Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
What's really going on here?
Back in the day, Ms. Rosenthal has recalled, she got some great advice: "Don't worry so much about being the absolute best at what you do (there’s always going to be someone 'better') but rather try and be the only one who is doing what you do.’" She loved that. "Kinda gives you permission to experiment, be true to your own voice, and suck a bit if you have to."
The experiment here is the form. Seemingly unplotted --- but actually highly organized; as she confesses, she did five drafts of the book --- 'Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life' is carefully designed to get you to the letter 'Y' (which comes after Z) in a state where you'll be receptive to that entry (which is all about 'you'). So she starts cute, as if to reduce herself to a goofy waif: "We invite you to add your name to the list of people who have ever read this book and who were personally thanked (by e-mail) by the author. Click on 'Thank You' at encyclopediafanordinarylife.com." (Never received e-mail from a published writer? Hey, here's your chance.)
Then she "orients" the reader with pages of "plain facts" about American life, her life to date in a few pages of diary entries, and Important Dates. Finally, on page 37, the book actually begins. And any fool can quickly grasp what she's up to: celebrating every last minute of daily life, peeling the onion of banality to reveal the magic inside.
Like the entry 'Running into Someone.' She blanks on names. "And then, at the last heart-racing second, the name will come to me." An easy lay-up. Two pages later, she's discussing Joseph Brodsky's habit of using the same quote from Robert Frost. If I did that, you'd bristle: snob! When she does it, it's....interesting. You can feel the ground starting to shift.
CAR WASH: "Every time I go to the local car wash, the owner peers inside, throws up his arms and says, 'Oh, Miss, very dirty! Very, very dirty.' I'm sorry. I didn't know I was supposed to bring it in clean."
EUPHORIC: "The child is euphoric because there is an elevator button that needs pressing. Or perhaps a moon is spotted in a daytime sky."
FRENCH FRIES: "How great is it to find a few stray bonus fries at the bottom of your McDonald's bag?"
HUSBAND: "Jason and I were fixed up on a blind date, by my dad’s best friend, John. When I opened my front door and saw him, I knew there was something between us. By the end of our merlot and rigatoni, I knew he was the one. Fifty-two weeks later, he knew."
SMOOTH JAZZ: "It would be hard to not let your fondness for smooth jazz come between us."
And that entry about YOU? Sorry. I can't do that heavy lifting for you.
It's worth getting to YOU because Amy Krouse Rosenthal is very much a writer for these ADD-addled times. She's a poet, really. Her poetry isn't about stanzas, it's sentences, each a compressed idea or anecdote. They grow up to form paragraphs that become encyclopedia entries. But it's all built on that first sentence. A bravura performance --- there's nothing easy or lazy about this book.
By the end, although you never really know the husband or the kids, you kind of feel you do. And you definitely feel you know Amy Krouse Rosenthal. And, most to the point, you feel you know yourself better. You say, 'This reminds me of...' or 'When that happens to me, I...' and 'In our family, we call that....' and before you know it, you are dreaming your own book. That's impressive...
Amy Krouse Rosenthal is like the sister you never had. And now you do.