Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Jun 2, 2017

I think the very first book I read by Amy Krouse Rosenthal was Duck! Rabbit! It was cute and clever, and I liked it. But it wasn't until a couple of years later when I read Little Pea that I went back to the library and checked out Little Oink and Yes Day! and Spoon and a good many others. I was so excited about this new-to-me author that I passed on the recommendations to my good friend who lived across the street, and she fell hard for all books AKR also. We've both been fans ever since.

Earlier this year, I found out that Amy Krouse Rosenthal had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. You may have seen her essay in the New York Times entitled "You May Want to Marry My Husband." If not, you must read it pronto but not without a box of tissues close by.

After reading her essay, I immediately put her newest book (a memoir, not a picture book) on hold at the library. It took weeks for it to come in, and during that time, on March 13, 2017, Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away.

Reading this memoir was a sweet and delightful experience, but also heartbreaking. So heartbreaking. I don't know when in the timeline of writing this book Amy found out she had cancer, but I'm assuming the bulk of it had already been written by the time it was discovered. At any rate, she never mentions her diagnosis or seems to have any inkling that her own lifespan might be anything less than average. She didn't know how her story would end. But I did. And that made it all the more poignant.

In fact, she wrote things like this:
"If one is generously contracted 80 years, that amounts to 29,220 days on Earth. Playing that out, how many more times then, really, do I get to look at a tree? 12,395? There has to be an exact number. Let's just say it is 12,395. Absolutely, that is a lot, but it is not infinite, and anything less than infinite seems too measly a number and is not satisfactory. Also, I would like to stare at my kids a few million more times. I could stare at them a few million more times easy."
And I wanted to weep because she didn't actually have anywhere close to 12,395 more times to look at a tree.

I read When Breath Becomes Air last year. It was written by Paul Kalanithi after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The book was profound, as you might expect from someone who is facing his own death.

But therein was the magic of Amy's memoir for me. You expect someone who is dying to suddenly notice the beauty in the ordinary, everyday, mundane things, which Paul Kalanithi did. But you don't expect that from someone who is very much in the middle of living. And yet, Amy does: She feels happy when she arrives at the crosswalk and there are still many seconds left on the walk sign; she observes the beauty of green treetops against blue sky; she recognizes the fleeting sweetness of waving to her son as he stands by his bedroom window.

And when she highlighted those ordinary moments, I felt an immediate kinship with her. I'm not as good as she was at appreciating the loveliness in a normal day, but I despise the unrelenting passage of time because I want to live life to the fullest, and I don't think I've quite figured out how to do that yet.

The book has an unusual format, which won't surprise anyone who is familiar with Amy's work. It is set up like a textbook; it begins with a pre-assessment, followed by different subjects (geography, social studies, etc.). There's a midterm essay sandwiched in the middle and a final review at the end. It's not chronological in any way--more just little snippets of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's life and personality and musings.

There were parts of the book that I would give five stars to in a heartbeat (I want to memorize the midterm essay because I loved every paragraph so much). It was interesting to see how she applied each subject to her own life (I'm still curious to know who Ana and Peter were in the Romance Language section. I feel like I should be able to figure it out, but they're not mentioned anywhere else in the book. Maybe she talked about them in her first memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life? Or maybe they're pseudonyms for someone else?)

But I didn't love all of the subjects equally (which is similar to real life, I guess). For example, the math equations were clever but also seemed like a waste of paper. There were thirteen equations in this section, and they took up twenty-six pages. That made for some pretty fast reading, but I don't know if all that white space was really necessary. And also, there were just a few things that were maybe a little too clever for me because I just didn't get them, no matter how many times I read them again.

There was also a texting element to the book. At certain points along the way, the reader is invited to interact with the book. For example, if you see a rainbow, you can take a photo and text it, and it will then be added to the rainbow gallery. Or you can hear a recording of Kenneth Koch reading one of his poems. Or you can participate in a survey of whether curly or straight brackets are more popular. At first I thought this element of the book was totally gimmicky, but in the end, I think it did for me exactly what Amy Krouse Rosenthal intended it to. She is really big on making connections with friends and strangers alike (just read "The Short, Collective, Biography Experiment" if you have any doubts), and I realized partway through the book that I was doing something I've never done with any other book before: I was thinking about the other people who were reading it. Of course I wasn't actually putting names or faces to anyone or having any real interactions with them, but I felt this strange connection nonetheless.

The texting part is optional of course, and I only participated in the ones that interested me. My favorite was the musical accompaniment that went along with the last few pages of the book. It was beautiful and added a depth and poignancy I wasn't expecting.

But here's the truth: I really just love Amy Krouse Rosenthal's writing, and I love the way she thinks about the world, so I didn't actually care if it was my favorite subject or not. She captures life in a unique way, and there were many times where I paused in my reading just because I was so taken by her way with words. For example, this:
"The word literature enters the room with its nose in the air. But get it in a corner, ask the right questions, and it will reluctantly fess up to its humble origins. It hails from the Latin litterae, you whisper in your date's ear. It puts on a big act, but it literally just means 'things made of letters.'
Or this: 
"I cannot be the only one who finds myself making a concerted effort to heave/tug/lug a conversation up and over the hill of small talk."
The whole book (even my least favorite subjects) was such a pleasure to read. I wanted there to be more: more serendipitous discoveries, more playing around with words, more colorful observations.

Amy said,
"If it is wonderful, splendid, remarkable--a view outside a window, a lit-up fountain at night, that fig-chorizo appetizer--I am compelled to seek some sort of saturation point, to listen/stare/savor on a loop, to greedily keep at it until I've absorbed, absconded with, and drained it of all its magic. Invariably, I will have to move on before I have had enough. My first word was more. It may very well be my last."
I don't know what her last word was, but that's the word that kept coming to my mind as I finished this book. I want more of Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

And that is why, upon finishing it, I watched her TED talk, put several of her books on hold at the library, reread her New York Times essay, read Little Pea to Clark, and revisited my favorite parts of this book.

And it still wasn't enough.

10 comments:

  1. This one's been on my to-read list for a long time, but my library system didn't own a copy (can you believe it!?). I requested it to be purchased, but never saw it listed. Hopefully my new library system has it!

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    1. What?! That's crazy. I hope they eventually remedy such a grievous oversight!

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  2. This sounds amazing! I just put in a request at my library for them to buy it...hopefully they decide to! Thanks for posting this review.

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    1. It's so so good. I hope your library buys a copy!

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  3. I as so sad when I saw that she had died. Too soon! No more books. I'm still sad.

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    1. I'm heartbroken as well. She was such a talented, genuine author.

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  4. I think you'd love her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. I just re-read it, and it's infinitely clever. What a great mind!

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    1. Yes, I'm sure I'll love it! I can't wait to make some time for it! Have you read this one yet?

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  5. I read her article about her husband and wept. I love her. I love her books and I had no idea she died. I'm seriously in mourning. I will definitely read this book. Thanks Amy!

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    1. You were, of course, the friend referred to at the beginning of the post. That article is heartbreaking, isn't it?

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