Smudges | Housekeeping

My copy (and someone else's dear copy), Housekeeping

Odd back stain.

I’m that girl scribbling in the margin of your Pulitzer winning poetry book.  Bubble-lettering “ME!” in the top left corner of page three.  Cracking the spine.  Nuzzling the cover.  Taking picture of my eyes and half my nose peeking over that accordion of top pages that you get when you open a book right down the middle.  I look through the books in the local used bookstore for ones that someone else has loved like I will.  Where are the coffee stains?  Where are the fingerprint maps on the edge where you held the page just after baking?  I want that book with the oil smudge of a Southern farmer after a long day, the faded yellow of the back cover from the sun on a porch, and someone else’s name inside, in cursive, which was lost after second grade for me.

So now that you know all of that, I can explain this blog.  Last week I went to my second favorite used bookstore (the biggest one in my area) and picked up four books I had been recommended.  Edward McKay uses milk crates as shelves and I had to dig to the back row of books (behind other books) to find one copy of Housekeeping (supposedly the best women’s fiction of the 20th century even though I don’t believe fiction has a “gender genre.”)  I picked it up without flipping through like I normally would because it was the only copy and recommend to me by a professor.  (If you’re working on setting and beautiful language in description in your own writing, read this book).

While the book is really character, description driven and not very much plot at all, in fact I think it gets a plot on page 170ish (out of 219), I think it was beautifully written and I’ll share some quotes at the bottom.  However, this blog isn’t really about the book, but what I found hidden inside the folds of its pages.

I looked through as I started to read, first searching for the triangle bent pages that show where someone stopped, bookmarked, or just wanted to remember a quote to write down later (that’s me).  But I found other exciting things.  The first wonderful thing about this book is the stain on the back cover.  Unlike some people who would automatically think someone dropped this book in a pile of poop, I thought something different.  I’m always drinking coffee in spill-able mugs while I drive.  The coffee often drips over the edge when it’s stuck in the awkward cup-holder and forced in tilted because of its handle.  I’m too cheap to buy one of those eco-safe ones from Target for 20 bucks.  All this is just to say that it leaves a sticky mark in the cup-holder or underneath the e-break where I sometimes place them.  My dad does the same thing with Pepsi so it must run in the family.  I’m sure at some point I could spill coffee on my seat, as I often do on the cute shirt I’m wearing to work. (These are all signs of addiction).  And like all other book lovers I keep piles of books in my car (literally it’s a small library, you should see people’s faces when they step in the car) which may or may not get spilled on or placed in a coffee puddle.  So, the stain on the back – most likely from a coffee/book lover like myself who sips and drives.  (It’s probably time for an intervention).

My favorite thing about the book is that Claire signed the inside cover as if to say, “this will memorialize me.  This is mine.”  I can’t believe being the book hoarder that I am that I haven’t gone through with an ink pen to every inside cover of every book that I own.  Part of me wants to say that the cover is sacred and unless it’s a book from fifth grade (The BFG) I probably won’t be writing in the cover.  The BFG is special because it has a whole garden crayon drawn in the inside cover.  I was a reading artist it seems.

If anyone can figure out that last name I would love to facebook stalk her and maybe tell her about my find and do a blog solely on the reason why she gave up this book that she so clearly loved.

Quailridge receipt.

It didn’t end there though.  In my area, we have an amazing independent bookstore called Quailridge Books and it seems in 2005,  Claire bought the book there.

I can just imagine Claire swinging the glass door open, hearing the chime of her own entrance, her coat billowing behind her in the winter wind (she’d be the kind of girl to leave it unbuttoned).  The receipt says February 12th which is my nephews birthday (another odd coincidence that I will say was lined up by the stars).

Maybe she was in a hurry and it was on the recommended by staff rack that spins so you can see all the books in one sweep.  Maybe Robinson was going to read at some point in the coming months and so they had placed it on the first shelf as you walk in.  Robinson isn’t local.  Or maybe, she wasn’t in a hurry, and she was recommended this book by a professor and so she went straight to the R’s, reading just before Richard Russo and just after Tom Robbins.  There the white spine, with bold, all capital red lettering read “Housekeeping.”

Or perhaps, she perused the store.  She picked up greeting cards for relatives up North hoping it would thaw their hearts from the cold, and the clearing of driveways, and the sounds of snow plows in the night.  She looked through a Dubus collection, or Quindlen because they were both judging the National Book Award and Claire knew that she wanted to win that in ten years.  Joan Didion would win in 2005 for nonfiction and all of America would grieve their husbands.  I know that this is the version of what she did because she also bought a “blank notebook” for ten dollars with tax of 70 cents.

I secretly knew other things the whole time as well. Claire went in with a list of things she’d like to get, a list of things she’d like to do before the evening.  She had a plan.  The book had been mentioned in our newspaper, The News & Observer and she had written her list directly over the article on Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s newer book that a lot more of you may be familiar with.  She wrote the list on February 6.  She’s so busy it took her until my nephew’s birthday to go to the store and collect her findings.  On the 6th, a Saturday in 2005, she wanted to do the following.

Claire's list

  1. reading + breakfast
  2. quarters + laundry
  3. deposit payroll + pay rent
  4. fog @ Flying Saucer 2:30 pm
  5. Regulator – Gilead + Housekeeping > by Marilynne Robinson
(International list? Nice Price books? Pennies for Change?)
+ New Journal
        6. groceries? black beans, cheese, oatmeal, fruit
Fast forward.

Claire is somewhere at a desk this evening smudging the knuckle of her pinky finger with ink, dragging her right hand across the page, margin to margin.  She is tapping her left foot because she is anxious to write the scene where the girl gets stuck under the bleachers during a football game, and it is raining.  She has socks on, a barrette pulling back her bangs.  She uses ink, the lines of her palm are damp with sweat, there are sounds coming from outside the window in front of her desk.  The sounds are of small birds, or a trash can moving slightly on its wheels.  Claire will write this scene and then go downstairs to kiss her husband goodnight and peel a clementine using the nail of her thumb.  She will eat each part whole without chewing them in pieces, watching the orange insides bleed a bit onto her fingers.  She will go to bed with her hands sticky, her fingers coated in black residue.  She will begin again on that scene in the morning, she will over-revise.

You finish the story, aren’t we all Claire ourselves?

Marilynne Robinson in News & Observer

33 thoughts on “Smudges | Housekeeping

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you. That’s so true. I get quite romantic about my books so I can’t imagine feeling the same about an e-reader. I didn’t even think about that though. Thank you for pointing that out.

  1. Sarah says:

    I adore everything about this story you just told. I love finding other people’s scribbling and doodles in used books as well, it let’s me know the book holds love inside its binding.

  2. ClaireMcA says:

    Traces of the one before. The fragments of a story within the story, like ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society’, that’s the best story I know that came out of someone scribbling their name inside a book. Indulges that fantasy of imagining the lifes of other readers, love it.

  3. Bea says:

    I loved this post. I hope Claire sees it and identifies herself, or maybe not. I really enjoyed your “imagined” Claire, and might not want her to change.
    You have always been the person who enjoys other people’s things; your many “Goodwill” prom dresses, your obsession with someone else’s charm bracelet, and of course, the used book store. Something that someone else has touched and loved touches you. It’s a beautiful thing.

    • Cassie says:

      Just let me find one :) Send them out into the world. I’m such a book hoarder that I can’t let any of them go. Hopefully at some point I will and people will find treasure in my scribbles. Thank you for the kind words.

  4. Andrew Petcher says:

    I think it is Claire Ancelet and if you google there is a CA in Rayleigh NC.
    I enjoyed your post. I am a book hoarder as well always resisiting any sort of disposal to the point where the floor of the attic is groaning. I am considering a Kindle but only for the convenience of travelling – for me books are too important to be e-replaced!

    • Cassie says:

      I googled her and I’m excited to see if that’s the case. I have an ereader but I can’t seem to read things on it. I just keep buying more books. It’s just really….not romantic to read on an electronic and I feel myself criticizing the book because of it. I’m such a schmuck. Thanks for visiting.

  5. Rose says:

    If I could have each book in duplicate, I’d die a happy person. One for the snob in me, perfectly untouched, pristine looking and the other one with my personal touch. You can add here my own novel written on the corner of the book; different doodles- starting with stars and flowers, probably in different shades of grey, dark blue and red; big red circles on my favorite quotes; tea stains &Co.
    Love you article!

  6. grainsifter says:

    I so love this post, in such a myriad of ways. With all the talk of print versus e-books we often forget that we often leave bits of ourselves within the pages, our scent, our jottings, our stains…you are a true book lover.

    Please do write a followup if you end up connecting with Claire, or even better, write a novel!

    • Cassie says:

      I emailed who I think it is so I will try! And thank you for he sweet words, you know you’re one of ky favorite bloggers I don’t have to tell you again. And you better share your book!

  7. Liz says:

    This may just be my favorite post of yours. None of us even know this Claire, and yet I want to know her now, because of your description.

    I have a similar coffee problem. In fact, the mat on the passenger’s side of my car has had coffee spilled on it twice this winter, because the Thermos I use is too top heavy for my stupid cup holder. My cup holder itself is decorated in vertical dried-sticky-coffee stripes. The inside of the car smells like cigarettes, sea breeze, and coffee. As I write this, I’m drinking coffee out of a mug. Coffee and books are my crack.

    I’m going to have to read Housekeeping, if only for the lesson in description.

    • Cassie says:

      Well, thank you. It seems we are birds of a feather when it comes to coffee. I’m typing this comment with a mug next to me as well, haha. Do read it, it’s very elaborate, and the setting is kind of wonderful in an eerie way.

  8. Let's CUT the Crap! says:

    I adore used book stores. You never know what you’re going to find in a second or third-hand book that someone’s left behind. Yes, there are stains but there are also receipts, photographs, cash receipts, postcards.

    Loved the review.

  9. bowlofbees says:

    I read this book at almost the exact same time as you…how strange. As strange as the ladies in Housekeeping? No, not quite that strange.

    • Cassie says:

      Oh they are so, SO strange. I loved the book because it had this personal touch and I’m superstitious, but man was it odd, and almost completely plotless. What did you think?

      • bowlofbees says:

        I really enjoyed it. The book made a lot more sense to me when my professor pointed out that Robinson is deeply religious and the book is kind of a meditation on those beliefs.

      • Cassie says:

        Ah, that does make much more sense. I didn’t know that. I knew Anne Lamott was very spiritual (obviously), but not Robinson. That makes total sense with Gilead as well – have you read that?

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