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TODAY

Sunday, November 19

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There are certain things only your best friends know. They know how you like to walk a certain way to the El so you can pass by the apartment with the red walls where you'd one day like to live. They know how you like to like to lie in bed and fall asleep to the Daily Show every night. They know all these little things about you that aren't particularly notable on their own, but because they're the little things that make you you, they're actually pretty special. These are the things that are the heart of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's "ordinary life."

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is Rosenthal's catalogue of all those quirky things that she's experienced, all leading her to become the woman she is today. Written in the style of encyclopedia entries, the book may seem nonlinear in its alphabetical organization, but Rosenthal strings together seemingly random events to paint a full picture of her life. In one of the book's longer entries, "Childhood Memories," Rosenthal details a chronological list of just that. She watches cream turn her father's coffee light as she stirs, she recounts the tastes—M&Ms, Baskin-Robbins ice cream cakes, Froot Loops—of the time, and she remembers those sayings that had her confused for far longer than they should have. It may be easy to wonder why you should care about the memories of a stranger, but with each bit you'll remember the first time you tasted your mother's coffee or how the house smelled like pancakes every Sunday morning, or the moment, like Rosenthal, when your childhood abruptly came to an end.

This isn't your regular autobiography, though. In a time when spicing up lives has become an everyday practice—whether on the internet in blogs or on paper in bestselling memoirs—Rosenthal's Encyclopedia is effortlessly engaging and honestly funny. Refreshing may be the best word to describe it as writers who can engage in the most self-absorbing form of the practice yet still retain Rosenthal's sincerity are the rarest kind. On the one hand she describes the time she talked the city government out of issuing her a parking ticket, contesting it on the grounds of good karma – a bold move she accompanies with copies of the relevant letters. On the other hand she describes the quiet reluctance of returning to the world after a rainy day:

A rainy day comes as a relief. Rain is your pass to stay inside, to retreat. It's cozy and safe, hanging out on this side of the gray. But then the sun comes out in the afternoon, and there's disappointment, even fear, because the world will now resume, and it expects your participation. People will get dressed and leave their houses and go places and do things. Stepping out into the big, whirling, jarringly sunny world—a world that just a few minutes ago was so confined and still and soft and understated, and refreshingly gloomy—seems overwhelming.

The ups and downs—Rosenthal's eccentricities and introspections—make this much more than the tedious volume its title suggests. Going beyond the pages, the book's birth involved a project wherein Rosenthal stashed copies of the hardcover in various locations throughout the city and invited the finders to record the experience on her website where a video of the project can also be found. Readers have typed in their moon descriptions and "purple flower" moments and Rosenthal even baked a pie, as promised, for the hundredth purple flower entry. As a participant in the local literary performance Funny Ha-Ha, Rosenthal gave her words breath, even laughing quietly when she realized her husband was wearing the loved brown corduroy shirt she was at that moment describing. It's this engagement with her readers that makes Rosenthal's autobiography a story that many can identify with. These are things only your best friends know. These are the things that make your life uniquely yours. In Rosenthal's hands, that life is far from ordinary.

Further Reading

Check out the book's official website, www.encyclopediaofanordinarylife.com. Read thank yous, download Rosenthal's theme song and leave your own impressions. Be sure to view Steve Delahoyde's aforementioned video—after reading the book you'll surely be jealous you didn't happen upon a copy yourself.

Joining the Book Club

Read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life this month and join the Gapers Block Book Club on Monday, June 12, 2006 to discuss the book at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave., 7:30pm. Visit the book club forum to discuss the book online and sign up for the mailing list to receive news, announcements and reminders.

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About the Author(s)

Veronica Bond is filling in for Alice Maggio this week. Veronica likes books a lot and is enjoying her new Lakeview headquarters.
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