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Esquire
Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005


 

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

All About the Details

A review by Anna Godbersen

Now, you pick up a book, and because the word encyclopedia is in the title, you are pretty much sure that it is going to be alphabetized. And as often happens in books with gimmicks of this kind, there is some miscellany before you get to the things that start with A: a reader's agreement (to be signed), a list of confirmed planets and methods of exercise in the early twenty-first century, a synopsis of the publishing history of the book itself. There is also a foreword, which ends with the words, "I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story." So you consider this manifesto of plainness, and wonder: Why read it at all? What has this writer got to show me?

In many ways, the alphabetized version of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's life will not reveal anything you don't already know. Her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life covers the to-go-coffee habits of our time, some small moments of sweetness in family life, the depressing impossibility of the Sunday New York Times, and various quirky signage. It offers, in other words, a charming and witty picture of how we live now. It is organized around the compelling personality of Rosenthal herself, who reveals the minute discomforts and satisfactions of her emotional life, and dwells, as promised, on a minimum of tragedy, meanness, or pain. Reading a memoir of this kind, you can skip around, there's no real build, you miss stuff. That bothers you at first, but then you decide it's actually kind of cool. And then you get to the Tears entry, which includes a passage about a two-family vacation that ends with a dinner, at which the author has perhaps a few too many glasses of wine and forgets to help the other family do the dishes, and upon realizing her faux-pas the next day, and being quasi-reprimanded by the other mother, cries all the way home. And you think, how great is that? If that were in a short story, it would be so funny and sad and memorable. And then you start wanting more than just alphabetized entries.


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