Life, A User’s Manual


If you really want to make it so, you can condense Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual, down to a series of lists. Truly extraordinary lists. Not your average grocery store or ‘shit to do before I get on the plane’ or ‘reasons to give up booze’ lists. Lists mostly of things–things that tell the stories of his characters’ lives more adequately than their own monologues or actions ever could. The novel is brilliant for many other reasons, but you don’t need me to tell you that. And, of course, the lists get at something very personal about Perec himself. They tell the story of an author who lost both his parents at a young age, and somehow found his way through the terror of the Holocaust; through it all, he developed associations between tangible things and intangible realities, pasts, hopes, despairs…

Instead of swooning over his literary labyrinths, I’ll add another list to Perec’s User’s Manual.

Third floor, apartment next to the main stairwell, first room, living area. A record player is propped up, with its needle on a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood LP. The girl who lives here, Lindsay, is fairly certain that this record was given to her by her friend, Joey, who also gave her Perec’s novel, and therefore may actually be responsible for this passage. To the left of the record player is a roll-top desk, crowded with two Swedish children’s books from the 1950s (Lillingarna och Trollen, and Tomtebo Barnen), a book that was once a romance mystery twisted back and its edges cut and pasted together so that it forms the shape of a vase with two hand-sized American flags sticking out from its neck, a flashlight, an empty water bottle, Mod Podge, pay stubs from a book store and a non-profit, a shot-sized beer stein from a past Oktoberfest with the words ‘Seattle Weekly’ printed on the bottom; it now holds coins (mostly pennies), a ceramic mannequin of a child in a rabbit costume playing the guitar with one foot missing, Bananagrams, papers from the Department of Homeland Security, pens, a metal slinky with a twist in its center, keys with a rectangular, purple tag that reads in black ink; ‘Treaty of Neerlandia,’ thank you notes, and a crumpled black and white series of photos from a photobooth of four people smiling in front of a zebra-print background. Lindsay has never met any of these people. Next to the desk is the first of four bookcases. On top of the bookcase is one Swedish children’s book (Puttes Äventyr) with cover art that depicts; blueberries, a snail, and a yellow border, two tickets to the San Francisco County Clerk in a gold frame with a cardboard background, a wooden elephant her Aunt Georgeanne gave to one of her siblings on a trip back from Africa in the mid-1990s, a large gold-framed photograph of her and her older brother at young ages in masks and pirates clothing, and two hand-size American flags sticking out of two boxes covered in German reklam book pages that once were cereal boxes but now are stuffed with all of her favorite postcards, newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters. Propped up against the wall are seven framed butterflies pinned to a framed piece of Styrofoam. Her favorites are The Common Jay, with robin’s egg-speckled blue against its black-tipped wings, and The Tawny Rajah, with an auburn color that bleeds from its thorax out across its wingspan.

Next to the first book case is another bookcase, and a chair, and another bookcase, and between the third bookcase and the couch where Lindsay sits while typing now is a wooden statue about the size of a small child, of a woman with an ornate, pine cone headdress. She stands with one hand pulling up at her dress, which appears to be silk or something quite lightweight, although it is really just wood. This statue was given to her by her maternal grandmother, although before that it lived in her grandparents’ household for many years. As a child, Lindsay would offer the wooden lady imaginary tea and treats during the day. At night, she hoped the wooden lady kept her peace offering, as she stood silently over the end of a long, narrow hallway, always staring (eye-to-eye) at Lindsay.

Winter Favorites List

Mia asked me to write down my top ten favorite books. She said I had until Friday. Roughly two months later, I have a number of lists scribbled down on a number of different receipts and bookmarks.  I tried to keep each of my lists to roughly ten books, and when a list got any longer than that I made lists for separate sub-categories. They span from “coming of age” to “family chronicles” to simply “Japanese.”

But today, since I saw some sun through the shop window for half a day that put me in a chipper mood, I thought I’d put together a list of the books that got me through this particular winter. As I have probably mentioned to some of you, I didn’t think this winter was particularly bad. That could be for a number of reasons, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out denial, but a good book is a pretty distracting thing…especially on a rainy day.

Winter 2011/2012 Favorites List, in no particular order:

Kazuo Ishiguro- Never Let Me Go

I don’t read much modern fiction, but this winter I dabbled in some more recent stuff, and I’m really glad I did. Another of my somewhat recent modern favorites is Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. I mention him here because both he and Ishiguro play with memory, mortality and destruction in such a way that somehow turns an  imaginary past into a haunting place of refuge. Or, as Sebald says in Emigrants:  “Zerstöret das Letzte die Erinnerung nicht

Gabriel Garcia Marquez-Clandestine in Chile

I thought I had read everything Garcia Marquez ever wrote (er…that was published), until I realized I had mixed up News of a Kidnapping with Clandestine in Chile. I remedied this over Christmas. It was such a fantastic, quick piece of non-fiction! And somehow it also doesn’t lose any of Garcia Marquez’s iconic style.  In fact, sometimes that magical realism is almost more poignantly voiced through the mouths of unbelievably real people with a seemingly supernatural, omnipresent love and longing for ‘home.’

Carson McCullers- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“You’re tearing me apart Lisa!!!” Scroll down to the blog post from sometime this winter in which I pour my heart out to Carson McCullers. Since that post, I’ve read a bunch of her short stories and essays and a few other novellas. All good. All great, actually. But Heart is a Lonely Hunter can so solidly stand on its own. Big love stamp from Lindsay on this one.

Willa Cather- My Antonia

When  I started to read this I was shot back to my childhood Laura Ingalls Wilder phase and I was certain I’d just be reading about Ma and Pa and dang snake bites and passing the ol’ pig skin to kill time out on the prairie. I was mostly wrong, in all the right ways.

Just when you’re not sure how all her portraits and landscapes are going to fuse together in any clear-cut, overarching understanding, she pulls out lines like this: “Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky- Memories of the Future

Memories, memories, memories, time travel, memories, memories, time machine, memories, memories, mad scientist, memories…

Patrick Leigh Fermor- A Time of Gifts

Like Carson McCullers, I was so entrenched in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel memoir/prose/pre-WWI historical sketching that I dedicated a short post to him earlier this winter. It was, in a sense, a rough read, because it brought back that contagious feeling of adventure through travel. And in a less self-indulgent, egocentric Jack Kerouac kind-of-way, he wraps you in his travels by so eloquently capturing the character of  a people and the complexion of a place.

Side note– did you get a look at that jaw-line?? Cat sounds!

Least-Favorites List

A few books I could have done without this winter, all for completely different reasons, but mainly under three categories: “Bored to tears,” “Holy God I’m too depressed for this” and “Oprah’s Book Club” in no particular order:

Margaret Atwood- A Handmaid’s Tale

Knut Hamsun- Hunger

Maude Hutchins- Victorine

More things I found in books

Since I got such a positive response for the last post, I’ll share a few more things I found in books. I can’t seem to remember what the titles of the books were for any of the following photos I found, so here’s to a more organized New Year. Hope you enjoy these lost and found faces as much as I do.

Oh, and, Happy Birthday, Mom! January 13th!

Things I Found in Books

What I look for in a book is pretty simple: I’m a sucker for a good story. But sometimes I get an extra bonus when flipping through the pages of a used paperback. Usually, the only thing left in a book is a receipt or a bookmark—pretty boring stuff. Sometimes just torn off pieces of paper, or, most often, nothing at all. A few tucked corners and maybe an inscription on the cover page. “Happy Birthday Sara, love always, Mom.”

Once I found $50 in a book on how to make money with your gun collection. I’ve found porn tucked between the pages of military uniforms in WWII. I’ve read some pretty heartfelt inscriptions in poetry anthologies dated not long before they were sold for a few bucks. Sometimes the best part of buying a book that has already been read is taking home with it a little piece of something the former owner left behind. I’ve gotten better at not buying the actual book itself, but Maureen once showed me a book she kept with hundreds of four-leafed clovers falling out of its pages.

Here are a few items I’ve found in books over the years. Trust me, there’s plenty more to come.

I know it’s cheesy, but I can’t help but to wonder; who were these people, how did they end up here, what story do they tell?

As a side note, I include the title of the book in which I found the item for the ones I remember or documented.

"The Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics"

"What to Expect When You're Expecting"

A Time of Gifts

Sometime in June I was working at the bookstore on a Sunday afternoon when a few customers came in to chat about the passing of the British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor. It wasn’t long before I was swimming in obituaries in the New York Times, the Guardian, and so on. I had never heard of this man until his death. But I recently finished reading Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, and was so delighted by the world he brought to life.

His first book, based off the journals he took while making a trek in the winter of 1933 from Holland to Turkey at the age of 18, made me reflect on my times in Germany. I was so tempted to post old photos of my travels in Germany, particularly the South, to parallel his terribly witty and poignant descriptions of the Swabia in pre-WWII times.

Instead, I’ll just highly recommend his work and post some recent pictures from my here and now in Seattle.

First, Happy Belated Halloween.

Second, these are posted for Michelle, whose travelogue is about to take-off…LITERALLY on Monday at 12:30 am from SFO. This is the Seattle that will be waiting for her when she returns next year.

Fair Weather for the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair

About this time last year, I envied people like me. I would scuttle into a coffee shop on a rainy Sunday and stand in line with one arm hoisting a pile of overdue feminist geography library books with titles like “In Her Place” and “Spaces of Desire,” and another arm holding my “ol’ turbo” laptop that looks like something straight of Weird Science. Waiting for my daily double Americano, I scanned the room.

There were people doing non-student things everywhere. People young and old with fingertips black from perusing through the Sunday NY Times or making the always bias decision between the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Oh how I envied them. And as I sat on a bar stool behind my blue computer screen, I would watch as the city of Seattle carried on with its lovely, lazy Sunday afternoon without me. I envied those people even more.

Today, I grabbed my lovely, lazy, post-graduation Sunday by the horns and took it to the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair.

I started out on foot with this girl.Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2010 book fair with two book collectors. It was one experience to go with two people who know as much as there is to know about books. It’s another entirely to go with a friend, simply ooing and aweing at whatever happened to catch our eyes or touch our hearts.

There was just too much to see, including delightful Sendak illustrated mini-sets and Edward Gorey galore, but what really just got me were the charming botanical and natural history hand-painted lithographs from Lowry-James Rare Prints and Books in Langley, Washington. These scanned images don’t do them justice.

And then, with about 12 minutes before the exhibition closed, we found Ampersand of Portland, Oregon. If I had my checkbook handy, my apartment decor would be drastically different. But alas, I guess I’ll just be making a trip to Portlandia soon.

What I loved about the book fair is being able to reach and touch antiquarian tombs and artifacts that should probably belong in museums. I also love how a single children’s book illustration can set-off an onrush of memories like Proust’s madeleines.  But Mia commented on feeling like part of history; here is a book that someone wrote, someone bound, someone sold, someone owned and treasured, that you then bought and eventually will pass on the same. In this way, perhaps, they are never really ours to begin with at all.

We finished a perfect Sunday with bouquets from Pikes Place and a slow, lingering walk back up Capitol Hill. I intend to spend the rest of my evening inking my fingertips with reading and staring out my window, watching the city of Seattle say goodnight to its lovely, lazy Sunday.

Higglety Pigglety Pop or There Must be More to Life

By Maurice Sendak. Chapter 1.

Once Jennie had everything. She slept on a round pillow upstairs and a square pillow downstairs. She had her own comb and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, and for cold weather a red wool sweater. There were two windows for her to look out of and two bowls to eat from. She even had a master who loved her.

But Jennie didn’t care. In the middle of the night she packed everything in a black leather bag with gold buckles and looked out of her favorite window for the last time.

“You have everything,” said the potted plant that happened to be looking out the same window.

Jennie nibbled a leaf.

“You have two windows,” said the plant. “I have only one.”

Jennie sighed and bit off another leaf. The plant continued.

“Two pillows, two bowls, a red wool sweater, eyedrops, eardrops, two different bottles of pills, a thermometer, and he even loves you.”

“That is true, ” said Jennie, chewing more leaves.

“You have everything,” repeated the plant.

Jennie only nodded, her mouth full of leaves.

“Then why are you leaving?”

“Because, ” said Jennie, snapping off the stem and blossom, “I am discontented.I want something I do not have. There must be more to life than having everything!”

The plant had nothing to say. It had nothing left to say it with.

Okay, these are some people I miss. More from Sweden to come, pinky swear.