Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal – Amy Krouse Rosenthal (2016)

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Having read and totally enjoyed (nay, adored) Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s early book title, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life , I knew that the odds were that her new pub was also going to be of the same vein: experimental, drily funny, and wonderful – and so it was.

Goodreads describes it thus: “a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human”, and I would argue that it’s that and a lot more. It’s really truly one of my favorite books so far this year. (Admittedly, the year is still young, but still….)

If you’ve read any of Krouse Rosenthal’s work, you’ll know that she is an artist who is comfortable pushing the edges of literature and the idea of books. Her work is not difficult to read, but there’s little linearity and very little of the traditional format that a reader would expect in a more traditional publication. And it’s this experimentation and playing with the format that makes Krouse Rosenthal’s work so much fun to read (at least it is for me). I really admire Krouse Rosenthal, and I just know that if we knew each other, we’d be close friends (in a completely non-weird non-freaky manner).

(Maybe I’ll call Krouse Rosenthal “AKR” in future paragraphs. It’s shorter. Besides, we’re friends…)

One of the first things that I noticed when I picked up this title is that it’s a very interactive experience. AKR encourages readers to text (as in phone text) her number and join in the reading experience that way, so it’s not just you sitting down and reading a book. It’s you reading a book, joining hundreds of other people at the same time in a social experience that is happening real-time. (It sounds like a pain, but it’s not at all as you can see if you visit her accompanying website right here.)

The title, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, refers to a number of different things (which you’ll learn about if you read this), but it’s structured in a similar manner as a timetable in middle school with chapter headings titled “Social Sciences”, “History”, “Music” etc., just as a middle school student would face during his or her typical day. Under each chapter heading are pages and topics that relate to that theme in some way. For example, under “Music”, one comment is “You don’t see very many chubby orchestra conductors.” (It’s much much better than that example portrays. I promise.)

There is loads of white space, but it’s more of a space to breathe than negative space. The paragraphs can be short and interestingly formatted, and it’s not chronological at all as subjects are grouped by topic rather than a strict timeline. It’s as though you are inside AKR’s head as she remembers things – very similar to perhaps you (and certainly I) remember things. Just jumping around from one thing to the next with perhaps only a tenuous connection (if anything at all) between each separate thought.

I’m not at all certain that I’m doing this work justice, but if there is only one thing that you extract from this paltry review, it’s that you should go ahead and read it. Honestly. It’s that good.

ETA 03/24/2016: Just learned that Amy Krouse Rosenthal died from cancer this week. 😦

Swabbing the Decks…

 

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Life has been a bit busy, and so, in an effort to get up to date, I’ve put together a few mini-reviews of what I’ve been reading – all good titles, but for one reason or another (usually time-related), I haven’t put together a long in-depth post for each of them.

book338Packing for Mars – Mary Roach (2010)

A fun reread piggybacked on to my read of Chris Hadfield’s astronaut guide (and in fact, Roach referred to Hadfield every now and then which I thought was interesting.) Roach’s was a good read as she delves into such random details about the space program and which NASA probably doesn’t want to address in any formal way.

Mars is 400M miles away so it takes years of packing and planning and training for any successful trip, and Roach dives down the different rabbit holes that come up during the course of that preparation. From what to eat in space to how your body changes in long-term assignments at the International Space Station, it’s all here. What do you do when you are in such close quarters with your other team members and there is no getting away when they’re bugging you to an extreme? How do you go to the bathroom when you’re up there? What is it like to be back on Earth and facing gravity after six months of floating around without? All each disparate topic seems to flow naturally from one to the next due to Roach’s careful structural writing.

Worf from Star Trek - an homage?

Worf from Star Trek – an homage?

One random note that I made concerned Star Trek and Worf (played by Michael Dorn), one of the Romulan characters on that show. Roach mentions that there really was a space food scientist called D. L. Worf. Nice guy if a bit nutty (he suggested that astronauts could eat specially treated paper for nutrition.) Additionally, he suggested using edible materials to make parts of the space shuttle (e.g. using sugar for the windows) and then astronauts would not have to worry about taking food to space with them, but could merely snap off a bit of the space shuttle for a nibble every now and then. (Worf was more about the nutritional content than the taste and texture, methinks.)

And I think that the Star Trek writers were doing a quick homage to earlier space researchers when they used the name Worf for this character. Hmm. Makes you wonder what else you’re missing in the series, doesn’t it?

Roach is insatiably curious and as tenacious as a bulldog in following a topic through to its resolution. And yet she seems so charming and I would love to know her in real life. (We saw her give a talk on campus one year – she was fascinating and very approachable.) So – basically, I am one of Mary Roach’s biggest fans and thoroughly enjoyed this read.

book337The Victorian Hospital – Lavinia Mitton (2002)

This was bought when we visited London’s Hunterian Museum (a medical museum linked with the Royal College of Surgeons), except this slim volume focused on various aspects of hospital and medical history during the Victorian era. I found it very interesting and took loads of notes, but reading over them now, I think they are fascinating only to a very small audience so I won’t force you to read them. Suffice to say that hospitals have come a long way since they were called “Gateways to Death.”

 

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (1986) book331

This was more of an experimental novel (more a novella) which describes in excruciating (but strangely fascinating) detail what the protagonist is thinking about as he returns from his lunch break and rides the escalator back to his office. The entire book occurs between him entering the office building after lunch and getting on the bottom of the moving staircase, and ends when he reaches his office desk on the second floor. Loaded with footnotes that get lengthier as the book proceeds, this is not a book for the faint-hearted (experimental-wise). However, I enjoyed it. I looked into Baker’s backlist, but it seems that he veered into the XXX-rated side of stories after this one. Maybe I’ll just stay with this title. 🙂

The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? – Padget Powell (2009)

This was one of those weird art-y novels that occasionally pop up from graduates or participants in an MFA program across the States. (Not sure why so many experimental books grow out of the US programs – surely other nations with Creative Writing programs do similar projects? Perhaps it’s the difficulty of getting it published..? Hmm…)

The twist to this particular book is that it’s actually made completely of questions – there is no other sentence construction other than questions. And the questions run rampant across topics and issues, ranging from asking the reader whether they wear galoshes to the differences between moss and lichen… In the wrong hands, this obviously structured format could come crashing down on to the ground, but, for some reason or another, this actually works (or at least it did for me).

Despite being initially skeptic about the project, I found that the questions posed by Padgett, one after the other in a relentless stream, is rather like having a conversation with a very curious robot that leaps from topic to topic. Sometimes the questions may lead logically from one to the other, and sometimes there is no connection between them, but it was a bit like taking a self-test in psychology or somewhere. I really was intrigued enough to actually think about how I would answer some of the more unusual questions the author poses in between the more run-of-the-mill ones.

Padgett is an established creative writing professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and although, as mentioned above, this whole stylistic endeavor smells of checking off the list for tenure for academic faculty, this experiment actually worked. I don’t really understand just how it worked for him – but it was engrossing enough for me to finish the book (thin though it was).

This was both a provocative and enjoyable read if you are open to stylistic experimentation. If you’re looking for a traditional plot, you won’t find it here, but what you will find is an interesting list of wide-ranging questions that will make you think. And isn’t any book that can make you think a good one? (Discuss.)

🙂